Building connective democracy: interdisciplinary solutions to the problem of polarisation

Christian Staal Bruun Overgaard, Anthony Dudo, Matthew Lease, Gina M. Masullo, Natalie Jomini Stroud, Scott R. Stroud, and Samuel C. Woolley

Polarisation and its consequences

Recent decades have seen an increase in polarisation, or the extremisation of beliefs, in several contexts and a surge in research on the topic. The vast majority of this research has focused on the nature, origins, and outcomes of polarisation; scholars have paid relatively little attention to how the negative consequences of polarisation can be mitigated. In this chapter, we use connective democracy — a new approach that seeks to reduce divisiveness and promote constructive discursive spaces — as a lens for understanding the problem, with an orientation towards bridging societal and political divides. To this end, we review recent advances from a variety of disciplines in search of practical and feasible solutions to the harmful consequences of polarisation.

There are different forms of polarisation, and they have been documented in democracies across the world, including countries in Africa (Michelitch 2015; Southall 2018), East Asia (Dalton and Tanaka 2007), Europe (Westwood et al. 2018; Hobolt, Leeper and Tilley in press), Latin America (Singer 2016), and the United States (Iyengar et al. 2019). One type of polarisation relates to specific issues. For example, during the last three decades, the American public has become increasingly polarised on a wide range of political issues, such as environmental laws, immigration, and governmental regulation of business (Pew Research Center 2014). Polarisation is also evident on scientific topics, such as climate change, nuclear power, and childhood vaccinations (Nisbet, Cooper and Garrett 2015; Pew Research Center 2015). Another type, affective polarisation, involves dislike and distrust of those holding opposing views (Iyengar, Sood and Lelkes 2012). The rise of affective polarisation is particularly evident in the US (Iyengar et al. 2019), but similar trends have been found in Europe, notably in the UK, following the 2016 Brexit vote (Hobolt, Leeper and Tilley in press). Yet another definition of polarisation, the percentage of Americans identifying as Republicans or Democrats, or the extremism of self-reported ideologies (on the liberal-conservative spectrum), shows little change over time (Gentzkow 2016). For our purposes, we focus on issue and affective polarisation and review solutions for combatting their detrimental consequences.

Scholars have offered several explanations for rising polarisation, including negative political campaigning (Iyengar et al. 2019), polarising cues from political elites (Bisgaard and Slothuus 2018), media coverage and framing of polarisation (Levendusky and Malhotra 2016), the use of politically like-minded media (Stroud 2011), the proliferation of social media (Settle 2018), and the increasing salience of partisanship as a social identity (Iyengar, Sood and Lelkes 2012). These explanations make clear that interpersonal connections and mediated experiences contribute to polarisation.

Polarisation is worrisome because it strikes at central components of democracy. Wellfunctioning democracies depend on effective and equitable citizen participation, openness to persuasion, news media that hold powerful entities accountable, and citizen input into the political agenda (Dahl 1998). Polarisation can stymie each of these factors. This is not to say that all aspects of polarisation are democratically harmful; partisanship can have positive democratic effects, such as increased political participation (Rosenblum 2008). It becomes a threat to democracy, however, when it undermines free flows of information, respect for individuals, and open decision-making (Dewey 1984; Habermas 1984). When this occurs, the institutions of government function poorly. Polarisation incentivises political leaders to avoid collaboration because voters become dismissive of compromise on important issues, which can lead to political gridlock in formal decision-making institutions such as the US Congress (Hetherington and Rudolph 2015; Jacobson 2016). Polarisation can also harm social relationships; Americans, for example, discriminate against out-party members in both professional and everyday situations (see Iyengar et al. 2019).

Global polarisation is tied to the spread of mis/disinformation (the unintentional and intentional, respectively, spread of false and misleading content) (Jack 2017). Polarisation exacerbates the spread of false content, and the spread of misinformation can lead to polarisation.

A polarised electorate is more susceptible to misinformation. This is because people with more extreme attitudes are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning (Kunda, 1990), which, in turn, can make people more likely to believe congenial misinformation. Van Prooijen, Krou-wel, and Pollet (2015) find that people with extreme opinions are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Tucker et al. (2018), similarly, argue that partisanship predicts the types of information that people tend to believe. The outcome is that partisans not only disagree on political issues but also even perceive objective facts about the world differently — a tendency that has increased in the US in recent decades (Jones 2019).

The spread of misinformation also can exacerbate polarisation. For example, Cook (2016) argues that, beginning in the 1990s, politically motivated disinformation about the causes of climate change began to make many people doubt the scientific consensus on the issue. This led to a polarisation of views on the topic. Even a little misinformation can have real effects. Corner, Whitmarch, and Xenias (2012) show increases in climate change scepticism after reading one editorial undermining scientific consensus on the issue alongside one that took the issue more seriously. In fact, Woolley and Howard (2018) find that digital propagandists often specifically target already-polarised parties to inflame their polarisation. Given the negative consequences of polarisation and their connection to misinformation, finding ways of reducing polarisation is paramount. We turn to these strategies next.

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