What is polarisation, anyway?
What is polarisation, anyway? This is an important question to begin with when you want to talk about polarisation, says Eelco Harteveld, a political scientist affiliated with the University of Amsterdam. ‘For a long time, political scientists studied polarisation in terms of opposing points of view – what we now refer to as ideological polarisation.’ Remarkably enough, there was little evidence to show that in a country like the United States, for instance, differences in opinion had become greater in recent decades than was previously the case. ‘This finding was rather confusing, because at the same time, the contrasts between groups did seem to be growing.’
As a result, some ten years ago, political scientists began to explore polarisation from a different angle: by viewing it as a gap in how we think about one another. ‘We call this affective polarisation,’ Harteveld continues, ‘and based on this approach, it became clear that polarisation in the United States has increased exponentially. The distrust between Democrats and Republicans has grown, as has their mutual antagonism, despite the fact that – from a historical perspective – their points of view haven't diverged any further at all.’
Overlapping divisions reinforce one another
Research has also shown that polarisation intensifies when the lines of division overlap one another, such as when political differences coincide with regional contrasts and/or differing levels of education. ‘The more those divisions coincide with one another, for instance Republicans with lower education levels living in a rural area versus highly-educated Democrats living in cities, the larger the distance becomes,’ Harteveld explains. ‘The other party becomes more and more a stranger that you wouldn't encounter in your own social circle, and that makes people more hostile. The rise of social media can bolster this alienation, as we increasingly find ourselves in our own little bubbles where our aversion to the other side can easily be nurtured.’
Polarisation in the Netherlands
So what's the situation here in the Netherlands, then? In 2019, Harteveld conducted a study aimed at how people in the Netherlands view others and their political opposites. He asked thousands of Dutch citizens to arrange groups in society along an ‘emotional thermometer’ with a scale ranging from 0 degrees (‘cold and negative’) to 50 degrees (‘neutral’) to 100 degrees (‘warm and positive’). The groups which participants were asked to arrange on the thermometer included supporters of various political parties in the Netherlands, such as ‘Socialist Party voters’ and ‘Christian Democrats’ voters.
And what did he find? Dutch people tend to judge people with a different political preference than their own (much) more negatively than those with a different religion, level of education or ethnicity, or those from a different region or the other side of the urban-rural divide. ‘I found this division based on political preferences quite surprising, as the Netherlands is typically governed by coalitions,’ says Harteveld.
People who vote for the Green party often view Party for Freedom voters as if they were from a different planet, and vice versa
That dislike for the other side was most strongly felt in connection with topics such as migration and refugees, while the widest gap was observed between those who voted for populist parties like Forum for Democracy or Party for Freedom (PVV) on the one hand and Green voters on the other. ‘For these groups, political contrasts often coincide with non-political divisions, which only serves to heighten hostility. Not only are PVV voters and Green voters ideological opposites, they also tend to differ from one another in terms of education level, age, the urban-rural divide and media consumption. As a result, people who vote for the Green party often view PVV voters as if they were from a different planet, and vice versa,’ Harteveld explains.
Polarisation occurs in waves
The reports from another study – conducted by the Social and Cultural Planning Office of the Netherlands (SCP), which has been charting how Dutch citizens view all manner of subjects since the 1970s – show that, in the 1970s, affective polarisation might have been at a level similar to today. And while that level had since dropped, it has been on the rise in recent years. ‘It would appear that polarisation occurs in waves,’ says Harteveld.
How might polarisation affect elections in the Netherlands?
It is of course impossible to say for sure, but in any case, Harteveld does not foresee any real danger to our electoral processes as a result of polarisation. ‘In a multi-party system like ours, polarisation is less likely to result in a flat-out refusal to accept the results of an election, like we just saw in the United States. Election results here in the Netherlands depend less on small differences in numbers and therefore don't lend themselves to being contested in the same way. Any tensions that might arise are more likely to be found in the subsequent process, when it's time to form a coalition and it becomes clear which parties will – and will not – be part of that alliance.’
Negative campaigning typically reserved for populist parties
Another difference is that so-called negative campaigning – campaigns that attempt to portray one's opponent in a negative light – figures less prominently in Dutch elections. ‘Actually, this type of campaigning is used only by the more populist parties such as the Party for Freedom and the Forum for Democracy as a means of defying the mainstream parties, who in turn respond aggressively as well. There is a reason that the perceived distance between voters is also greatest between those in the mainstream and those more on the fringe,’ according to Harteveld.
‘One thing that might play a greater part in the upcoming elections than it did in 2017, and which might lead to increased polarisation, is where we are getting our information and the role of social media. To what extent does social media reinforce the opinions we already have and, by doing so, increase our hostility toward the other side?’
A little bit of polarisation is good, but too much endangers democracy
And is polarisation always a bad thing? Not necessarily, Harteveld says. ‘You actually do need a little bit of polarisation to have a democracy. It's important to allow for dissenting opinions and to be able to express criticism of other points of view. This shows that you are involved in politics, that it matters to you personally, and that motivates people to get out and vote.’
‘But when polarisation goes too far, that's obviously not good. Democracy is in danger when people are completely unable to see eye-to-eye; when they refuse to listen to one another's viewpoints while blindly accepting anything their own side says or does; or when they view each other with so much hostility that even violence becomes an acceptable response in their eyes, like what happened in the U.S. The same also applies to instances where polarisation and belief in conspiracies come together: when you can no longer agree on the facts of the matter, and each side has not only its own perspective but its own reality, then the resulting gap cannot be bridged.’
How polarised are you?
But what is the best way to handle excessive polarisation? ‘At the individual level, you should make sure every now and then to ask yourself “How polarised am I? Am I still open to hearing someone else's opinion? Am I still prepared to listen to other people?”’ is Harteveld's advice.
Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences
Programme group: Challenges to Democratic Representation