Gabriella Ilonszki is Professor Emerita of Political Science at Corvinus University of Budapest.
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Both the politically interested public and the academic world are well aware that political polarisation prevails and is growing in several parts of the world. Even those who are not politically conscious think that they should affectively attach to a political trend. Many of them seem to be separated from each other by cemented walls and, sitting in different information bubbles, do not want to listen to and cannot even understand the messages or views of those in the other bubble. One polarised region that frequently appears in international news and academic analysis is Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Here, I want to reflect on the following: is polarisation justified and, if so, what are its particularities in CEE? But first, I want to point out a hiatus in the understanding of polarisation, namely that it is overly —or even exclusively— understood in political terms: polarisation of society produced by political parties, i.e. the public is divided along strictly partisan lines, and political leaders advocate a polarising agenda to stabilise their power. But why is polarisation growing in general?
Societies have always been divided without being excessively polarised: fundamental cleavage lines were impossible to trespass —ethnic groups, religious groups, minorities of different kind did not mix and perceived others foreign and different. Although these cleavages were often related to differences in voting patterns and political behaviour, they did not necessarily lead to political polarisation, i.e. a dichotomy, a feeling of “us and them” (us against them). Affective polarization implies a strong emotional attachment to one of the two opposing poles and detachment to the other. The “polarised voter” would feel an uncritical attachment to his/her group and a detachment to the other; not only that, the detachment is often stronger than the attachment per se. There are a number of countries with strong and lasting cleavage lines that are not polarised, and others where cleavage lines have not been so sharp and yet polarisation prevails. An example from CEE comes to mind: in Romania a long-lasting ethnic cleavage prevails, while in Hungary societal dividing lines have not been very sharp, yet Hungary is rightly described as a highly polarised country contrary to Romania. Thus, polarisation does not necessarily follow from societal cleavages, but seems to be an artefact or, to put it more simply, from political machination. This does not mean that one cannot find some cleavage patterns on both sides of the polarised political scene (for example, urban population appearing in greater proportions in one bubble and rural populations in the other), but it is highly questionable whether these are the substantive roots of polarisation. While conflict or cleavage lines are multifaceted and sometimes even overlapping, polarisation hides this rich societal reality.
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