Toward a Theory of Pernicious Polarization and How It Harms Democracies: Comparative Evidence and Possible Remedies
Forthcoming, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, January 2019
68 Pages Posted: 26 Nov 2018
Date Written: August 31, 2018
This article compares the dynamics in eleven case studies analyzed in this special issue to draw conclusions about antecedents of severe political and societal polarization, characteristics and mechanisms of such polarization in action, and consequences for democracy. We find that neither any specific underlying cleavages nor any particular institutional make-up explains the emergence of pernicious polarization. Instead it arises when polarizing political entrepreneurs exploit existing grievances with Us vs Them discourse to mobilize voters, and opposing political elites reciprocate the polarizing tactics. We further generate hypotheses toward a theory of pernicious polarization and its consequences for democracy, explaining various outcomes in terms of the political construction of the polarization around ‘formative rifts’, the relative capacity of opposing political blocs to mobilize voters versus relying on institutional mechanisms such as courts and military to constrain the executive, and the strategic and ideological aims of the polarizing actors. We conclude with reflections on how to combat pernicious polarization.
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