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Can democracy function in a polarized society?

Posted By Robin Jourdan, Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Robin Jourdan inspects the functioning of democracy under polarized conditions of the society in her tenth blog post for our Emerging Fellows program. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.


To polarize is to cause people to divide into distinct groups. Polarization is more than just having a different opinion than a neighbor. It’s when we refuse to live near that neighbor we become polarized. During the American Revolutionary War, not everyone in the Colonies wanted independence. Loyalists to the British Crown, aka Tories, included William Franklin, then royal governor of New Jersey and son of Patriot leader Benjamin Franklin. Holiday dinner must have been uncomfortable.


Let’s not be confused that polarization is a political tool. Polarization isn’t limited to the US, of course. Europeans, disenchanted with mainstream politics and growing global anti-establishment sentiment, have extended the fragmentation. There is a price to pay for polarization. For example, we see a decrease in charitable giving and personal health. There is more pressure to conform, and it’s easier for us to be deceived. Legislative gridlock and violence grow.


Of the many forces shaping polarization: tribalism, trust, community, technology, media, and politicians are reaching a collective apex. Tribalism is almost religiously seen today by groups that compete, especially where negotiation and compromise are perceived as a betrayal. As Abraham Lincoln put it, “Constitution and Laws” were to be America’s “political religion.” All this talk of tribalism misses a crucial point. Diversity, when combined with equality, makes us stronger. This is not new.


Who benefits from polarization? Take a lesson from Deep Throat: follow the money. Today’s Fifth Estate: search engines, social media, and news media benefit from polarization. The first two, using algorithms and personalized content create non-arbitrary access to information. The growing glut of information generates confusion and discomfort for many. Algorithms assuage this by providing only that information which is personally comfortable and self-reinforceable.


Countries with less diversified but emerging media markets, e.g., China and South Korea, are becoming more polarized due to the development of such media. When business models are based on how much time and interest a user spends on a site, the incentive is clear. And nothing outdoes puppies followed by outrage. In the West there is a quote: “Common etiquette says not to talk about politics, sex, religion, or money. But these are the most interesting things to discuss!”


Going forward, as the Gen Z society’s comfort with diversity becomes influential toward mid-century, businesses that improve transparency will build trust and thrive. Evolutions in the business world will similarly progress expectations on representatives. But growth can be stunted by a lack of trust in unconstrained technology. New technologies support opportunities only if the public has confidence in how the data is used. Missed opportunities will grow. Only 1-2% of consumers today trust that their personal information will be protected in the markets through mid-century. Wearable and implantable technologies enable people to interact in new ways. Digital services can contribute to a shared vision of social justice, environmental and economic stability if a generally inclusive worldview expresses public dialogue.


Can democracy function in a polarized society? The principle: nature abhors a vacuum is equally true in a political ecosystem. Manipulation byproducts of the Fifth Estate will diminish only when government earns confidence by solving real problems. Political systems failing to deal with complex issues and social dissatisfactions have many reasons for fabricating distracting headlines. First, governments must learn from the business sector and catch-up with real transparency. Without the possibility of polarization, where differences of opinions allowed, we stumble into authoritarianism no matter how well intentioned at the start.


Second, polarization ignores moderates. Today, moderates in the US are leaving the traditional 2-party system in favor of the “Independent” party. A moderate’s goal is not to make the world conform to some extreme perspective. Instead, it’s to work in the world as it actually is, with all its messiness and confusion. International relationships that are based on mutually relevant values, and respect, signal moderation. Have we reached a global or regional “peak polarization”? Not quite. However, today, moderates matter more than ever. Every swing of the political pendulum includes a moderation period.


© Robin Jourdan 2019

Tags:  democracy  polarization  society 

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Tim Morgan says...
Posted Friday, October 25, 2019
I keep wondering if our increasing polarization is due in part because we sense that we sense that we are all at the top of the Industrial era's S-curve, moving us from Positive-Sum cooperative thinking to Zero-sum competitive thinking. We are obviously at the beginning of the Post-Industrial S-Curve, and all the old & new players are trying to shove their preferred vision of the future forward. That competitive conflict is amplified by the 5th Estate for both profit and as players in the influence game. What troubles me is that the dominant voices appear to be pushing forward unsatisfied Used Futures from the Industrial era. I think democracy will be increasingly under threat until one "side" abandons their used futures in favor of new ones appropriate for our new opportunities & challenges. Then we may see democracy stabilize again. At least I hope so.
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