Luis Miller is a tenured scientist at the Institute of Public Goods and Policies of the Spanish National Research Council.
This translation has been automatically generated and has not been verified for accuracy.
Thursday 23 June 2016: 52% of those taking part in the Referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union vote to leave the Union, the remaining 48% vote to remain. Wednesday 6 January 2021: Supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump storm and occupy the United States Congress building for several hours. Thursday 1 September 2022: An attacker attempts to shoot Argentina’s Vice-President Cristina Kirchner in the street. Sunday 4 September 2022: 62% of participants reject the text of the new constitution proposed by the national convention in Chile. Sunday 2 October 2022: The candidate Jair Bolsonaro wins, against the odds, more than 43% of the vote in the presidential elections in Brazil and advances to the second round. These five events correspond to very different countries and historical situations; however, they have all been singled out as examples of what we now call political polarisation. What do they have in common? Does it make sense to use the same label to define them all?
The picture is clear: polarisation implies a division, the configuration of two opposing camps that are increasingly ideologically, emotionally or socially distant. In Argentina, political polarisation is known as the “crack”. In many cases, all three types of divisions occur simultaneously. First, the ideological divide increasingly places political parties and movements at the extremes of the ideological spectrum. In the rejection of the new Chilean constitution, for example, ideology played a dominant role, according to later reflections. The constitution was further to the left than the majority of the country’s population was willing to accept. In this case, therefore, the polarisation is an ideological fracture —a rift. The two models of society confronting each other in the Brazilian elections also clearly show this division: Bolsonaro’s conservative right versus Lula’s progressive left. But the rift can also be emotional and identity-based. What Trump is introducing into US politics, according to most analysts, is not a radicalisation of conservative ideology, but a commitment to identity (“America first”) of us against them. This explains the importance of discourses related to migration policy. The case of Argentina also responds to a type of polarisation based on identity, where political division has not ceased to be present since the arrival of democracy in the 1980s. Brexit in the United Kingdom also pitted two opposing identities —British and European— against each other, but it shows us yet another side of polarisation: social polarisation. The latter represents another rift, a growing geographical and demographic separation of voters of different ideologies. Rural and older Britons were more supportive of the UK’s exit from the EU, while younger and urban Britons were less supportive. Finally, the divide between groups with different partisan affinities goes beyond ideological or emotional issues to issues such as tastes, lifestyles and places of residence. In the United States, urban lifestyles, organic food and cycling are associated with progressivism, while country music and driving an SUV are associated with conservative ideology.
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