The political polarization we see nowadays in the West, though heightened in the last few years, is not altogether new. Excessive partisanship has always existed and is a hallmark of political systems and their processes.
As mentioned in the previous post, political parties hold fixed ideas on how societies should be governed. As such they tend to vie with one another as adversaries not unlike opposing tribes, or teams in sport. Although parliamentary and legislative systems offer mechanisms for dialogue and co-operation between parties, an unwillingness to work together tends to be the rule.
Societies can be stifled by this habit of playing politics as if it were a zero sum game. At best it makes for inefficient lawmaking. At worst it can result in almost total political paralysis for periods of time, as we are increasingly seeing in the case of the United States.
The pattern we often see is that the governing or majority political parties will usually do all in their power to drive through their agendas in the time they have in office. Opposition parties do what they can to amend, stop or otherwise delay the creation of those laws. Genuine and often well-meaning suggestions by the opposition to improve proposed legislation are often deliberately ignored by the government which is married to its agenda, and can see its mandate to rule as an opportunity not be missed, even a chance to rule absolutely.
There is no better example of this kind of head-butting than in the semi-staged piece of theatre known in many parliamentary systems as ‘Question Period,’ or ‘Question Time.’ The daily event is designed to hold the government to account, and involves members of the parliament asking questions of government ministers (including the head of government).
Rather than using the opportunity as a more spontaneous dialogue to work towards consensus or test ideas, the scripted diatribes become verbal slugfests and dialogues of the deaf in which thrusts are made, and attacks parried – with lots of chanting and jeering among party members on both “sides.” Most of the parliamentary sound-bites we see on the news are taken from this sometimes chaotic and dramatic event.
This behaviour is an example of what author Deborah Tannen calls our “argument culture,” in which a society is conditioned to its core by notions of dichotomy, dispute and ritualistic opposition.
But does politics need to be practised like this?
In the 1990s, the UK’s Channel 4 ran a television program called ‘The People’s Parliament.’ The show brought together random people from all walks of life to debate numerous political issues important in Britain at the time. At the end of each episode the participants were obliged to reach a compromise.
According to the Economist, many viewers of The People’s Parliament considered its debates to be of higher quality than those in the British House of Commons. Members of the former, unlike the latter, seemed to listen to what their colleagues say.
But because we’re so used to a more aggressive style of politics, in which issues are fought to loggerheads, the TV station considered the show a flop.
“So what did Channel 4 do?” writes Rutger Bregman in his book, Humanity: A Hopeful History. “It pulled the plug. Producers felt the debates were too calm, too thoughtful, too sensible, and much preferred the kind of confrontational entertainment we call ‘politics.’”
The rigid polarization we see today is an acceleration of this kind of win/lose style of thinking in politics, partly driven by the media’s interest in keeping us entertained. And, although we can blame the gatekeepers and elites for this, many citizens are also responsible by preferring drama to the slower burn of learning and finding solutions – as our social media feeds indicate every day.
All of this represents a failure to regard politics (as it was sometimes in the past) as an exercise in the art of compromise, and the crafting of complex and risky responses to difficult challenges. This is an idea that societies need to return to today, and quickly, if they are to put off deeper stagnation, widespread violence and perhaps even eventual collapse.