According to a conflict-conscious conception of democracy, polarization is part of its essence. According to this ‘agonistic’ conception of democracy, polarization means that the political positions of values and interests can never merge consensually into one another but remain in opposition in order to struggle persistently and continuously for political power within a democratic framework. The ‘polarization’ currently in dispute as a new threat to democracy, on the other hand, is meant as a process or state in which the usual pluralism of liberal democracy changes into an opposition of parts of the population which, refusing to argue and communicate, confront each other only as power blocs. Because in this state the willingness to cooperate in joint state control is abandoned, not only is democracy endangered, but a transition to the autocratic alternative is also in the offing. Here is a brief description of the roadmap towards autocracy to identify the critical turning points. Without knowing them, we do not know where we currently stand.
At the beginning of seeing clearer of what polarization is about, there is the definitional question of when an agonistic conflict of interests turns into an antagonistic one that undermines democracy itself. Not every conflict of opinion represents polarization, such as that of migratory bird conservationists against wind farm operators, ‘Easter march’ pacifists (in Germany) against rearmament advocates, radical ‘Last Generation’ activists against slow climate pragmatists. Where exactly does the polarization begin? By questioning parliament, for example, but where does this in turn start off? Through actions such as super-gluing oneself in the street, damaging works of art, or in the end only with terrorist acts? The transition from agonism to antagonism can probably be found where the opponent in the conflict is denied legitimacy in the political sphere. This transition can be expressed in threats of violence or exclusion, but it sometimes also manifests itself in non-violent refusal to accept official policies. If these examples are not sufficient for the question of definition, it is because of the lack of a simple explanation of the tipping point from agonism to antagonism. Only if the underlying motives and drives are grasped can the potential to endanger the state be assessed.
More in-depth work on the question of definition is necessary because the term ‘polarization’, as now widely used in empirical studies, threatens to get blurred into anything. It is not surprising, for example, and symptomatic for this tendency that there is heavy disagreement among social scientists about the extent to which polarization has actually increased in society. There is an impression that this indeed is the case, which has been sharpened above all by daily international news, but it is countered by some recent academic studies with the completely opposite diagnosis. Such partly quite contradictory results suffer from the fact that they often differ greatly in their use of terms. Thus, talk of polarization threatens to become a wide-open receptacle for social contrasts, or even just differences, i.e., not only for opposing opinions, but for occupational, familial, ethnic and many other segmentations in society. With a term having become so arbitrary, it is no longer possible to make concise statements. To start with, we should focus under polarization on ‘political’ polarization. However, a definition that is shared in research is also lacking for this narrower use, and the remarks here will not do to help finally towards such a definition.
A difficulty also with political polarization arises from the fact that populist currents can be much less clearly classified politically compared to the simple right-left orientation of the twentieth century. At the present, many diverse life-world occasions are elevated to political ones. Insofar as there is an overarching sign of polarization, this consists of individual groups claiming to fight for a ‘general interest’ representing the whole of society and nation. An overall moral claim is made by right-wing radicals in the name of ethnic and cultural unity, by nationalists against cosmopolitans in the name of the nation, by cosmopolitans in the name of humanity, by secularists against believers in the name of liberalism, or vice versa in the name of life or God, and currently, especially in Germany, by climate activists in the name of the entire planet. Compared to the cherished older class conflict that has long dominated the political dynamics in Western democracies, the new polarization has a far greater potential for escalation. Unlike collective bargaining, these oppositions are difficult to compromise with. Such strongly moralized counter-positions lead to demands radicalized in terms of ethics, which can hardly be answered pragmatically by the political establishment. The examples also show that not all polarizations are based on the rich-poor divide, even if this one always also is an accompanying cause with catalyzing effect. The very value-ethical sharpening of endemic economic existential problems creates the new polarization dynamic, and contributes to its particular anti-democratic explosiveness.
However, it would be an error to identify value-ethical orientation abstractly as strictly caused by value attitudes, turning the activists into pure moralists. The target and binding point of orientation is primarily the collective, usually the nation, the homeland, the people, the religious community, and more recently nature, the future generation, the planet. The increase in a deontological ‘ethics of conviction’ (Weber) goes hand in hand with a moral claim to exclusive representation and develops into the formation of blocs of ‘us’ against ‘them’ on the basis of social bonding and radicalization effects. In Western democracies, these are usually populist groups and parties in opposition to the traditional mainstream parties. Democracy comes under pressure when either these groups enter the parliamentary process through new radical parties or challenge official policies as ‘representatives of the people’ from the outside of democratic institutions.
A critical phase in populist collectives occurs when they turn away from official democracy because they no longer expect a desired response from it. This can happen in the name of ‘real’ democracy, claiming ‘real’ equality for the oppressed against the one-sided, partisan equality of the ‘elites’ or the ‘system’. In the process, the rich-poor divide today has become blended with often arbitrary combinations of anti-capitalist, anti-scientist, nationalist, ethnic declarations, and therefore increasingly tends towards an exit from regular inner-democratic solutions. Then begins a potential transition to the autocratic alternative. This can be partial (illiberal democracy, Hungary, Turky), temporary (state of emergency, USA) or permanent. The path to autocracy often is supported by one or more professional politicians within the democratic system, or by charismatic outsiders like Trump, who run against the system in the name of the nation and promise new power to the ‘oppressed’.
The now widespread discussion about polarization has two obvious focal points. One is the analysis of the nature (definition) and causes of polarizing processes. Philosophers have commented in this context on how polarization might be identified. Philosopher Robert Talisse, for one, distinguishes different forms and levels of polarization. Talisse has also shed light on the approaches of antagonistic polarization in the ambiguity of basic democratic values, primarily the tension between equality and justice. While philosophers are astute in studying the subjective preconditions of polarization, however, their work easily lapses into mere normativism if they do not even fall for the aberrant notion that the main cause of polarization lies in a lack of reasoning ability. This is where explanations of a systemic nature must come in: Poverty, alienation, excessive demands in work and life, unemployment, religiosity turned political, existential threat, etc.
The second focus in present research is about the danger for democracy under attack. This attack is not an external one, but quite often one for an alternative understanding of democracy. As mentioned at the beginning, if democracy has inbuilt a readiness or even willingness towards conflict, this is to be expected. The dynamics that an internal development gains in the process of course depends on the quality of democracy. The Schumpeterian model of democracy, for example, oriented at the market-analogue offers to the electorate invites divisiveness more easily than a communitarian model would, favoring stronger communal bonds. The deliberative model, on the other hand, which has recently been strongly recommended, shows Janus-faced traits towards polarization.
Proponents of the deliberative ideal propose intensified debates, ‘minipublics’, and ‘lottocratic’ selections for citizens’ councils and special parliamentary seats. Objections of excessive demands to average citizens, one-sided advantageousness for academics, non-representativeness concerning the demos, and overall, a tendency towards elite rule come ready to hand. Moreover, the empirical evidence is so far lacking that any deliberations are likely to effectively mitigate polarized conflicts. It is equally possible that the uncompromising disputants remain incapable of compromise and even that conflicts deepen through increased moralizing and discursivation. In politics, the participants often confront each other not as truth-seeking and understanding-oriented partners, but as representatives of irreconcilable power claims, and often not as autonomous individuals, but as bound by group loyalties. Analyses of tendencies of one kind or another would be urgently called for, but at the moment are few and far between.
The impression remains that political polarization as a threat to democracy will remain a challenge not only at present but in the near future. Due to the thematic breadth of underlying phenomena, from psychological, socio-structural and not least normative-democratic sub-areas, it must become the subject of interdisciplinary attention. The articles in this focus are one further contribution to this endeavor.
Table of Contents
Focus: Democracy under Polarization
Title: Democracy, Civility, and Semantic Descent
Author: Robert Talisse
In a well-functioning democracy, must citizens regard one another as political equals, despite ongoing disagreements about normatively significant questions of public policy. A conception of civility is needed to supply citizens with a common sense of the rules of political engagement. By adhering to the norms of civility, deeply divided citizens can still assure one another of their investment in democratic politics. Noting well-established difficulties with the very idea of civility, this essay raises a more fundamental problem. Any conception of civility faces the problem of semantic descent, the phenomenon by which second-order norms devolve into tools for conducting first-order disputes. The problem of incivility in politics thus is not simply that of designing a suitably inclusive view of what civility demands. It might be that political civility can be cultivated only by way of interactions that are themselves not at all political.
Title: Informal Networked Deliberation: How Mass Deliberative Democracy Really Works
Author: Ana Tanasoca
Deliberative democracy started out as an ideal for mass democracy. Lately, however, its large-scale ambitions have mostly been shelved. This article revivifies the ideal of mass deliberative democracy by offering a clear mechanism by which everyone in the community can be included in the same conversation. The trick is to make use of people’s overlapping social communicative networks through which informal deliberative exchanges already occur on an everyday basis. Far from being derailed by threats of polarization, echo chambers, and motivated reasoning, informal networked deliberation can indeed put everyone in touch, directly or indirectly, with everyone else.
Title: From Prejudice to Polarization and Rejection of Democracy
Author: Gert Pickel and Susanne Pickel
With the growing success of right-wing populism, there has been an explosion of debates on polarization and social cohesion. In part, social cohesion is seen as being disrupted by right-wing populists and those who blame migration for this alleged disruption of cohesion. The developing polarization is not only social, but also political, so that in some cases there is already talk of a new cleavage. On the one hand, there are right-wing populists, people who do not want any major changes or who have problems with globalization; on the other hand, there are those who want to push through a transformation towards a ‘truly’ pluralistic society. Two issues in particular serve as bridges for this polarization: Muslim migration and the expansion of sexual and gender diversity. Positions on these two issues mark the content that facilitates the consolidation of opposing group identities. As a result, debates about values and identity dominate, leading to a polarization that reaches far into society.
Title: Ethics and Affect in Resistance to Democratic Regressions
Author: Fabio Wolkenstein
In recent times, it has become increasingly common that elected parties and leaders systematically undermine democracy and the rule of law. This phenomenon is often framed with the term democratic backsliding or democratic regression. This article deals with the relatively little-studied topic of resistance to democratic regressions. Chief amongst the things it discusses is the rather central ethical issue of whether resisters may themselves, in their attempts to prevent a further erosion of democracy, transgress democratic norms. But the argument advanced in the article is not merely about the ethics of resistance. It begins, perhaps unconventionally, by addressing the affective dimension of resistance to democratic regressions, looking in particular at the powerful feelings of anger and despair that pro-democratic citizens living under a regressive government are likely to experience. As the article argues, these feelings have not only motivational but also epistemic potential, which must be adequately theorized in order to understand how resisters can respond to the ethical challenges facing them.
Title: A Polarization-Containing Ethics of Campaign Advertising
Author: Attila Mráz
This paper establishes moral duties for intermediaries of political advertising in election campaigns. First, I argue for a collective duty to maintain the democratic quality of elections which entails a duty to contain some forms of political polarization. Second, I show that the focus of campaign ethics on candidates, parties and voters—ignoring the mediators of campaigns—yields mistaken conclusions about how the burdens of the latter collective duty should be distributed. Third, I show why it is fair to require intermediaries to contribute to fulfilling this duty: they have an ultimate filtering position in the campaign communication process and typically benefit from political advertising and polarization. Finally, I argue that a transparency-based ethics of campaign advertising cannot properly accommodate a concern with objectionable polarization. By contrast, I outline the polarization-containing implications of my account, including a prohibition on online targeted advertising, and intermediaries’ duties to block hateful political advertising.
Title: The Stopping Power of Sources
Author: Jonas J. Driedger
The article analyzes arguments, made by John J. Mearsheimer and others, that the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was largely caused by Western policy. It finds that these arguments rely on a partially false and incomplete reading of history. To do so, the article identifies a range of premises that are both foundational to Mearsheimer’s claims and based on implied or explicit historical interpretations. This includes the varying policies of Ukraine toward NATO and the EU as well as the changing Russian perceptions thereof; the political upheavals in Ukraine in early 2014 that were immediately succeeded by the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass; and the supposed absence of Russian ‘imperialism’ toward Ukraine prior to 2014. Finding that these interpretations do not hold up in light of relevant and available data, the article qualifies and contextualizes the validity of Mearsheimer’s arguments, points to superior ones, and highlights the need for case-specific expertise when using explanatory theory to make sense of politically salient ongoing events.
Title: Practice Theory as a Tool for Critical Social Theory
Author: Sally Haslanger
What is the best method for undertaking critical social theory, and what are its ontological and normative commitments? Andreas Reckwitz has developed compelling answers to these questions drawing on practice theory. As a practice theorist myself, I am very sympathetic to his approach. This paper sketches a social theory that extends the reach of practice theory to include non-human animals and allows us to discriminate between importantly different kinds of social formations. In doing so, I argue that a strongly normative basis for differentiating social phenomena is compatible with the methods of social theory and critical social theorists need not shy away from first-order moral commitments.
Title: The Society of Singularities: Reply to Four Critics
Author: Andreas Reckwitz
In this article, Andreas Reckwitz replies to the four critical commentaries of Patrick Baert, Andreas Pettenkofer, Austin Harrington and Sally Haslanger on his book The Society of Singularities. In this context, he discusses the general position of this book within the landscape of contemporary social theory and the question of what a ‘social logic of the unique’ means. He enters the question in how far his analysis of the new middle class differs from Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of the new petty bourgeoisie, emphasizing the combination of an orientation towards inner experience and social prestige in his account of the new middle class. He discusses the question of whether neoliberalism is responsible for the proneness to disappointment which the late-modern culture of self-actualization implies. Finally, he works out the differences between the type of critical analytics which his book implies and normative critical theory.