Transcript: with Thomas Carothers

Turi: Today, we’re thrilled to be talking to Tom Carothers, who is the Harvey V Feinberg chair for democracy studies and senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie endowment for international peace.

He’s a leading authority on international support for democracy, for human rights governance rule of law, civil society. And he’s the author of democracy divided the global challenges of. Political polarization, which we’ll link to in our notes. Tom, we’re thrilled to have you with us.

Um, let’s, let’s kick off at the, sort of the definitional level. Um, your book democracy divided the global challenges of political polarization talks about this growing thing that you see taking shape across all sorts of different, um, uh, politics around the world. So what is, how do you define polarization itself?

Thomas : I’m glad we start off with this fundamental question because um, people disagree about it. Polarization is polarizing, so, so let’s get right into it. It’s natural in a democracy to have contending sides that compete hard for power. That’s the nature of democratic politics. Um, they scramble for votes. They make promises, they bad mouth each other.

No that’s democratic politics. What’s wrong with that. What I’m interested in and the scholars who worked with me in this book is severe polarization, which is a kind of extreme form of polarization that can set in, in a society and really cause some damage first. It’s that? You have usually two contending groups and they start to align so that all of the important issues. Seen from one group, uh, looked different than all of those same important issues seen from the other group. So instead of having what political scientists like to call cutting linkages, like, okay, I disagree with you about this issue, but man, I’m with you on that one, everything I’m in this group. So anything you put forward on the other side, I disagree second.

It’s that? The groups become. So fricative so much in friction with each other. They just can’t work together because there’s a lack of common ground, usually growing animosity. And, you know, it turns into what we call a tribal politics. I don’t particularly like that term. Cause it sounds like your bad mouth in African traditions, but politics, which is really about faith and belief in my side, rather than attachment to a reason set of policy choices.

And then third. It sets in, and it’s not just six months or 12 months. It becomes a condition. That’s like a negative vicious cycle. And the more you do it, the more you say, well, we’d be reasonable, but these people on the other side, they’re just keep doing unreasonable things. So I’m afraid we’re going to have to fight fire with fire.

Then the other side says, see, they keep amping it up and then you get into this negative spiral. So those are some of the conditions that you say it’s country of extreme polarization or severe polarization. Those are the things I look at.

Turi: Oh, that’s fabulous. Yes. We’ve spoken to a couple of people. Who’ve um, Who sort of expanded those, the sort of theory around this. I studied political polarization, the distance between, um, what people think, um, on the left and the right, for example, and then affective polarization, that degree of hatred, they feel free each other by the size of the political spectrum.

Um, but yeah, your categorization makes lots of sense. And actually just to go a little bit further, I think in your book, you described three key features. Of severe polarization one you’ve yet to the fact that the binary nature of it, to the fact that it’s sustained and three, um, you talk about the, um, the importance for a really good and really dangerous piece of polarization for both elites and the masses that could’ve come together. Could you sort of walk us through those three key features that for you are central to severe polarization.

Thomas : Well, sustain does I mentioned is, you know, it’s, uh, it’s set in and it’s not just a certain leader. And once that leader leaves the scene, you know, things are fine. And, uh, but I really want to get to the last one you mentioned, cause I talked about the other two, but the last one, you mentioned a mass versus elite polarization, um, because that’s really critical. In most cases that we looked at polarization starts at the top. It’s kind of a political game in which political entrepreneurs start using issues, often identity issues. We’ll come back to that and using them to amp up the temperature of politics and to, you know, really start aggravating the situation and then what they need to do as well. Push the polarization down into the society. If you want to see a vivid demonstration event, watch 10 minutes of a YouTube video of Donald Trump at a campaign rally, a master pusher of polarizing narratives out into the population and get them on board with the narrative that the political entrepreneurs creating. But there are cases where a society is quite polarized in some ways, but the political system is rather consensual. That’s interesting. There are fewer of those. The United States actually happens to be one, the 1950s and sixties, American politics in some ways was fairly consensual because our political parties hadn’t really polarized yet, but the population was starting to become more and more polarized over civil rights.

The Vietnam war, Watergate issues are incredibly divisive throughout the society. There were political conflicts too, but the society was becoming polarized into two different views of what Americans should be. And then each side wanted their party to embody that view and not be centrist and consensual. So in rarer, it’s rare, but in some cases, polarization works up in the society as opposed to more typical start at the elites and work down.

Turi: That’s fascinating. I got so many questions, so I was on the back of that, but, um, does the kind of Donald Trump example that you’ve given of which there are many around the world? I dunno. I wonder whether you count those Sonato in that category or for example, um, the kind of polarized politics of Hungary or Poland today.

Um, do you need a base upon which to lean, to be able to drive this polarization narrative, this polarizing narrative down, as you say.

Thomas : You know what I think he really need. Isn’t a base. You develop the base, but what do you need to develop a base? You need a grievance. You need a sense of grievance, most polarizing political projects or grievance projects. We, the Hindus in India have been put aside. It’s our country where 80% of the country.

Why is it that Muslims and others are stepping in front of us because of affirmative action. I’m going to stand for Hindu nationalism and take back her country. A grievance project of a majority, by the way, or Venezuela will go Chavez. The poor and the working class of Venezuela have been stepped upon by the rich and the banks and the businesses for decades. Let’s not take it anymore. Let’s overturn this system and let’s do what we need to do to bring justice to Venezuela. Almost every really polarized democracy has a grievance project behind it. You use the grievance to find your base, those who. Buy into the grievance and then you build it, you stoke it and you define the base and you define the grievance and you turn it into your that’s. Your battering Ram is the grievance.

Turi: That’s fascinating. I love your term or the idea, your idea of the sort of political entrepreneur, um, using his or her marketing tools, the best advantage to stoke up a base. Can I go to the other, um, the other approach that you flag, which is sort of the bottom up one. As reclines book on, I think it’s called polarization actually.

And he, he, he makes a point that you made right at the beginning of this conversation, which is to say that, um, there are instances in which polarization is a good thing. I think that as reclines line in his, um, in his, in his book and polarization suggest that actually the complicity of say. The Democrats who would have been the most natural allies of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties, the complicity of the Democrats in not rocking the boat in staying centrist, in staying aligned with a kind of, uh, uh, sort of a middle ground of politics, sort of hangs over them like a w with, with real blame. So there are moments where, as you say democracy, Um, sort of require some degree of polarization, Bob Tullius, who we’ve interviewed on this podcast describes polarization in a sense as a feature, not a bug of democracy.

Thomas : It is. Yeah, it is in so many dynamic systems theory. This is, you know, across all domains of the human endeavor. It’s, it’s finding the balanced in forces that are naturally dynamic in some ways necessary yet if. Released or uncontrolled can become destructive. So it isn’t like politics is, this is the right system. You’re, you’re fine. This is the wrong system. You’re in trouble. It’s can you keep this, this fire of competition and striving and struggling a democracy under control? And we can come back to what are some of the, the walls that you build around that fire to keep it under control? Let me. Just to highlight a very good point about two little polarizations about thing here.

Two examples. One is Germany, Germany in the 1990s, and two thousands became politically a very boring place. The choice between the center, right and central left in Germany was. You know, I mean, you could find it, but it wasn’t very interesting. And you had a series of coalition, governments and ministers from this party and that party working together. And part of the reason you have a radical alternative in Germany. And that was because of that, people felt like, Hey, I happen to care about migration and don’t. I agree with the consensus, who do I vote for or other issues. Another example is Chile, very successful country in South America with what appears to be a strong party system, a central party and coalition and center right back and forth and power for 20 or 30 years.

But then last year protests burst out that are kind of anti systemic. Just a whole bunch of Chileans. It turns out, hated the system and you’re like, but you have choices. And they say, I want other choices. These guys are just trading power, power back and forth. Like, you know, some people at a dinner party, I want some real choices. And so too much consensus can lead to a dangerous pressure for alternatives that usually tend to be anti systemic, but unfortunately, extreme and rule-breaking and dangerous.

Turi: That’s fascinating. So, um, to add to this notion of a grievance politics, which needs to form a basis for. Uh, a polarizing leader, a political entrepreneur who seeks to benefit from it. You’ve also got a situation in which an absence of any kind of an absence of enough choice over a sustained period of time will create that kind of grievance politics because not enough alternatives are being, uh, being surfaced.

Thomas : Yeah, that’s right. Yeah. Can I just say another word about grievance politics, juries? That grievance is a, it’s a consuming friend. Once you’re a grievance politician, you’ve got to keep stoking the grievances. And what happens is you watch it. Leaders will run out of a group. And have to find a new one, Viktor Orban in Hungary, the prime minister of Hungary who’s tremendously polarizing and very illiberal has he, he really has tried.

He said I started in, you know, when you came to power and about 10 years ago, he, he. Pushed forward. This idea of grievance about the central left mishandled economic crisis, they were lying to the country were falling apart. So it was an economic grievance. Well, countries started recovering as most countries did over the next five years. What’s next? I need to do another grievance. Oh, there’s migrants coming into our country. Oh my gosh. Our country is being overrun by 62 Syrian migrants, you know, and this is going to be the end of Hungary. So he played that. Very effectively for three or four years. And then the migration crisis kind of died down.

What’s next? LGBTQ. Oh my gosh. The homosexual agenda in our country, you know? And so it’s just serial grievance, serial grievance, monogamy. We could call it, you know, as they need one controlling. You know, grievance after another, and you can just watch the tacticians in them, calculating or Erdogan in Turkey is the same, you know, he was given tremendous life by the attempted coup in 2016, because he was after gazey park in 2013, the protests there, he was like, Hey, I need a new grievance here. Oh. They tried to get me in the coup, you know? And so they go, you know, from two to three, four years grievance at a ton.

Turi: Why does that? So there’s that, there’s a nice time. I liked that. I liked the idea of the politics of anger because anger has, uh, has, um, has a particular quality. A whole bunch of political theories have describe anger as the sort of quintessential political emotion because it is it’s right. Yes. It’s reasonable. It’s rationalized. There is a cause and there is an effect. The effect is anger. The cause is, and one of the things you’ve mentioned in the case of Victor Orban, but, um, so where are the, why did these things come about and how are they sustainable? How is that politics of anger that politics of grievance sustainable? What does it do to, to a population? Why do we.

Thomas : They embrace it. They jump to it. It’s like somebody speaking to my indignity to my. The way I’ve been mistreated, the way I’ve been overlooked, the way I haven’t been privileged. So here’s somebody speaking for me, I leap to it, I embrace it. And then I want to go with it because someone’s finally, you know, promising me some justice.

Uh, and so, you know, I remember watching the first 10 minutes of the debate in 2016, between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the first of the three presidential debates. Let’s see how this goes. And Donald Trump opened up his first statement with this kind of lavish. Statement about American carnage in our cities under this. And, you know, just, I looked out my window. I thought, my goodness, this is the country I live in, but he essentially won that election in the first 10 minutes because he defined a vision and said, all of those who, you know, are really unsettled by what’s happening in our country and feel economically dislocated, culturally looked down upon, left behind, and this way I’m your man. And you know what Hillary Clinton’s response ones probably don’t remember. She said, if you go to our website, we have a lot of good policy solutions. Uh, no, that’s not what people were looking to hear. You had to come, you, she would have had to put forward an alternative narrative and said, Donald, I believe in American, I have a more positive vision.

Yes, we have problems. But my train looks like this. Get on my train. Not that train, not go to my website and see some technocratic policy solutions.

Turi: so most of the examples that you’ve given here have been on the right Viktor Orban, credible scenario, Donald Trump. You also mentioned Uber Chavez of course, on the left, but is there a different tenor. To the, um, to the grievance politics of the left and the right. Does it appeal to a different kind

Thomas : it is different.

Turi: it different qualitatively? Yeah.

Thomas : I think in a nutshell, The, the rage from the right it’s basically nativism of some type it’s. Uh, there are others Horning in, on our country and trying to take what’s rightfully ours on the left. It’s all of us have been excluded except for the circle of rich and privileged people.

And it’s an inclusive grievance come join. This, we want everybody who feels they’ve been mistreated, whereas on the right it’s I can tell by looking at you, whether you’re a member of our tribe or not. And so it’s an exclusive grievance versus an inclusive grievance. Now doesn’t mean both are quite punitive to those they don’t include, but there is a different spirit behind them in various ways.

I can’t say that one’s angrier than the other, because people can be pretty angry and in both of those modalities, but there is a difference.

Turi: Okay. And so people often say that the right has all the best lines. That, that th that they’re far better able to write as far better able to access deep sort of lizard brain emotion when it comes to politics than the left, Georgia Lee coughs written an entire book about this. Um, is that fat? Is that true?

We just, do. We just happen to be in a moment in which the right has got the kind of the has got, has got the message.

Thomas : Well, it may be, yeah, that’s a good question. I haven’t thought extensively about it, but it may be that if you’re pursuing an exclusive Vista grievance, you can be more cutting because you want to slam the other side, put them down and say, Were the, were the real Americans, as they like to say in the United States, people on the, on the conservative side were the real Americans and they’re the, whatever they are.

Whereas in inclusive grievance, you don’t want to be so cutting. Cause you’re trying to build a big tent who go Chavez wanted 80% of them as well as to vote for him. Donald Trump wanted. 46.2% of Americans to vote for him or 46.3 on a good day. And so there’s a difference in the way kind of language you use, because when you’re trying to be inclusive, you don’t want to slam it down right down the middle with a sharp knife and say, we’re on this side, you’re on that side. So I think that may be part of it.

Turi: That’s interesting as a theoretician of the left in the UK, who’s actually Belgian called Shantelle move. Who’s written a book. Yeah, exactly how book the new, new left populism, um, which, uh, which makes us. Very strong call for a kind of a leftist populism, which includes as many people in the tent as possible while also being as nasty as possible about the people

Thomas : Right. Yeah. I’m not too fond of the nastiness in that vision, but yeah.

Turi: nor I, but, but, um, much of the response to that book was the left. Cannot do that kind of nasty precisely for the reasons that you’ve just described. You need a group of people. You need too many people in.

Thomas : yeah. Look at Corbin’s problems in the labor party with anti-Semitism. Um, you know, Trump can be a racist. Didn’t hurt him because that’s part of an exclusive, um, ribbon sky is some people aren’t on our team. Now. He did get. Black votes. And he did pander and cater in some ways, but basically, you know, there were a lot of racist messages in his presidency. Whereas labor party, one little group starts getting disfavored. People say, wait, that’s not the labor party. Labor party is inclusive. We don’t hate anybody. Um, so

Turi: No, that makes a great deal of sense. Okay. So going back to this, this, this mutable idea, which is that, the notion that there is something that has not been addressed, the, that the, that the, the politics, the prevailing politics have excluded a narrative or multiple narratives that has, it has not provided alternatives. I. I would hazard that the right in Western democracies over the course of the last 10 years in their swing to populist sort of populist polarized, right. That we see across Western democracies. This last decade, their argument would be it’s precisely because something was missing because a part of the narrative has been excluded because a part of political choice was denied us for a long time. Is that, is that, is that fair?

Thomas : That’s probably the most polite way to put it. I mean, I think it

Turi: I mean, don’t hold back to give us the less polite version.

Thomas : The play version was a number. Europeans felt that their identities were threatened by change in their societies. Either the arrival of people from other countries who looked and believed in things different, look different from them and believed in different things or changes in social Moore’s like relating to LGBTQ or abortion or women, the place of women in the household and so forth. And they begin to feel like. My country is I define it as under threat and I want to hold onto it. So stop. All those things that, that are changing my country. And so it’s it, you know, the rise of, uh, illiberal right in Europe is a reaction to change. And it’s saying, I want to work, walk back this change and to do so I have to break some eggs and I have to break, you know, a sort of standard consensus around migration is a good thing.

The arc of history may not be towards LGBTQ rights in my view, if you’re part of this view and so forth. So I think it comes from an insecurity about change. Uh, Feeling that I’m not being asked my permission and my country’s being changed from under my feet. Wow.

Turi: Do you by any suggestion of this, sorry, I’m pleasant and S and certainly massively overblown term, but this notion of sort of liberal fascism that, um, that the right often sort of dangles in front of, beyond Paul sound liberals, that they’ve somehow excluded the right from the narrative. And part of the backlash that we see today is. Does that because there’s been censorship.

Thomas : I think it’s overblown. There is a problem. In some cases with, uh, people on the left, not being willing to listen to contrary views are saying we can’t have a speaker at our university whom we feel goes beyond a certain limit, but. You know, I’m living in a country where, you know, we see people like the proud boys marching in the street, where in color-coded uniforms, carrying automatic weapons and shouting slogans of hatred. And they’re saying, yeah, our real problem is I’m like, Hmm, I’m a little more worried about that other fashion, right over there with, to see those guys. Marching around with automatic weapons and threatening people. It looks a lot more like fashion fascism to me, then a couple of student groups at Brown university who can’t stand having a conservative come talk about a different idea about religion and society. So. You know, I think we’re comparing apples and oranges a little bit here. And I think, um, there’s a broader tendency, at least in the U S debate to try to equalize the two sides and say, there’s, you know, liberal tendencies on both sides, but, um, at least a small part of the extreme on the right is they’re not just a liberal, they are fascistic.

Whereas on the left, I don’t think what we see cancel culture and so forth to call that fascistic is it’s just not a good use of that term. And I think it’s inappropriate action. Turi: Yeah. Yeah. I, I tend to, it’s a, it’s certainly wildly overblown and it, of course it’s massively devalues that, that the pain and danger of fascism itself. But, um, we’re talking with, sorry, let me back up. Um, we’ve um, we we’ve, we’ve touched upon. The kind of polarized politics that we see in the us in hungry, um, uh, broadly across, across the West. But your, your, your book covers polarization all over the world. You’ve already touched on, on India, but, um, but Colombia, but Bangladesh, but Turkey,

Thomas : Kenya,

Turi: Kenya, Indonesia, et cetera. Um, so there is a, there’s a particular move that. It has taken place across the West. And that we’re all conscious of what I found so interesting about your book is that it touches on, uh, elements of polarization elsewhere. Can you talk me through whatever trends you see that.

Thomas : There’s a lot of polarization in democracies all around the world. It has different kinds of routes, but it looks fairly similar in how it plays out. What are those different roots? It’s really striking. Um, when you look at the different kinds of cases, you see a pattern as there tend to be one of three different kinds of roots who come to you and say, Hey, I’ve got a very polarized country. I would sit down and say, okay, let me guess. It’s one of these three things, right? First, is it religion? Do you have in your country, a kind of conservative religious element that really wants religion and society to be more prominent and more controlling versus a more secular side into nationalism versus secular India.

Um, in Egypt before the Muslim brother, when the Muslim motherhood was briefly running the country 2011, 12 conservative Islam versus the secular Egyptian establishment. Turkey, et cetera. So it could be religion and it’s not between two religions. It’s usually there’s between a conservative view of religion and a more secular view of the same religion. And it’s not just Islam, Christianity and Poland, the Catholic conservatism of the Polish, right. Versus the more secular progressivism. Most it could be Judaism and Israel conservative, right. Which is fueled by a certain, you know, very conservative elements and so forth. So it’s not particular to a religion.

Second. Race ethnicity. It’s a big one. We tend to think it’s the biggest, but actually religions more common than the other is a driver of polarization, Kenya, a couple of major tribes that have really fought for over 40 years over power. There are other trends, but two big trends, um, that have been fighting over power. So an ethnic difference like that. And then the third is, I’d say an ideological clash ideology in the sense of the haves and the have-nots are really going at it. Venezuela 1990s who go childless, comes to power, represents the, have nots attacks, the haves, and starts to take apart the system. So, you know, you come to me on the polarization doctors say, doc, I’m just really feeling it.

I’d say, okay, which of these three? Do your God. And you go, Oh my gosh, I got some, a one little bit of two I’m okay. On three. And that’s how you can begin to sort of think, well, it’s the fundamental Fisher here in the country. That’s at least a start in thinking about the roots.

Turi: that’s fascinating. Okay. So with two of those issues, um, and so far as sort of religion, religion, and race, you got them, or you don’t, it shows you as you, as you say, they either, there is a major mix of religious groups in your country.

Thomas : No, hold on, hold up because imagine your Turkey in 1975 at a Turk came and founded the modern Turkish Republic in the 1920s. And you said, women take off your headscarves, stick off your veils. We’re going to make a modern circuit, secular Turkey. We’re going to put Islam in a certain kind of place. Country goes along for 50 years like that. And then there’s a new movement starts and sort of says, Hey, wait a minute. I think you’re, you know, we’d like to be a little more Islamic than that. And then over the next 20, 30 years, the AAP emerges an actor gets a strong leader and air DuJuan and a country that thought. Is it solved that divide a long time ago and for a long time. So it isn’t that you’re born with it. You can develop it. Unfortunately. Now you’d say, well, I can trace all the way back and say, Oh, I have the seeds of a rift like that. So what we call a political scientist called founding risks is a country is founded.

Are there sort of risks that are basic to the constituents? Sort of parts of the country that you can predict over time, watch out because this rift is there. Then over time it could, you know, I mean, I lived in the UK for years in the 1980s. I never would have thought Scottish independence would be a serious issue. 20 or 30 years later, I would have said, are you kidding? That’s that’s way in the past, that’s settled. It’s solved. Nope.

Turi: no indeed. And it keeps on coming back and that’s fascinating. Yes. The example I was imagining of course, was, was, um, somewhere like South Sudan, which had its very foundation has rifts going

Thomas : right, definitely right. Foundational ribs. That’s right shoulder.

Turi: but of course, somewhere like, um, but of course those, those risks can emerge. Now you might say that the Scottish. Uh, English divide has, was only there for us to look at, because honestly you go to a rugby match between England and Scotland and you can hear it in the staff, but, um, but, but yeah, not to that for, and I think probably your example of Turkey is so fantastic because it shows that a shift in culture can take.

A very large swathes of the population with it, leaving the other exactly where it stood and then build this rift, which sort of emerges like two tectonics plates separating across. Um, so I hear you completely on religion, especially if we’re talking about dialing it up or down on daily elements with up or down race, keep on thinking of, of course we go back to the South Sudan because Paul’s South Sudan has got all these things, but, but let’s take Belgium.

Thomas : Yeah. Beltran is a great example of those, an example of paralyzing polarization, yet the ability to manage it and keep it within bounds. Belgium has not broken apart as a country. It is, yes, it is dysfunctional in various ways, but it is one of the richest countries in the world, or, you know, in the group of top 30, which has countries and so deeply polarized yet functional in its own dysfunctional kind of way.

Turi: When it comes. So the last criteria, um, the haves and have nots, is there a. I kind of want a number from you, Tom. I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, if you know, if you know, 50% or more of the GDP of the country is controlled by 10% or less of the population, then things blow. Is that, is it, is that a thing or am I being ridiculous?

Thomas : I knew the answer to that question. I’d probably have the Nobel prize to the economics. Um, people have been, I mean, that’s why you need quality studies or a growth stock. People are wondering what that number is, you know, in the world. It’s 1% of the world has 60% of the world’s wealth. That’s that’s quite a bit, um, is that sustainable?

I dunno country by country. Some countries are in positions like that, and it produces a lot of anger, but there isn’t a bright line. Look, you know, you can have relatively high levels of inequality for decades and decades in a country. And it looks like it’s kind of working out and Brazil is like them, high inequality country, some real halves.

you had a couple of good precedents on Rica Cardoso. Then you had Lulu came in introducing policies to distribute the resources pro poor policies yet sticking with the capitalist growth. Very artful, I must say. And then boom system explodes in the last six, seven years. Why? Well, systemic corruption, um, and you know, anger at the public about the corruption, that system, but just as importantly, the economic success to those.

Working class, very poor people raise their level of education and their level of expectations. And they begin to say, now that I see how things work here, I get it. Yeah. You’re handing me this little nice, uh, you know, monthly payment, but I see that the big guys are still in the blind. And so it’s funny, you can have a successful attempt to manage inequality, which then produces more anger and. Case of Brazil and explosion burning down and the existing birdie political parties and the arrival onto the scene or the emergence of the Bolson ROS as the leader.

Turi: That’s just fascinating. There’s a French political theorist called Emmanuel Todd that you may have come across who predicted the demise of the Soviet union based precisely on rising education levels. Um, on exactly the same terms that you’ve just described in Brazil. Tom, are there any, I was one of the things that struck me in your book was that economic. The, the economics of a country have almost no bearing on polarization. You can have a company country doing really well economically, and it nevertheless blowing up when the other way around.

Thomas : I know I was really surprised by that. And I can tell you when I give talks on this topic, one of the first questions is usually isn’t this really just about poverty and inequality. People are angry and the country’s polarized. They’ll say, well, wait a minute. Let’s just pause. On three cases here, India starting in the early 1990s began the best economic run of its life. Thanks to the internet injection of some, some good reform policies. Precisely in those years, it became more polarized. Turkey had the best run of its economic life from the year 2000 to the mid 2000 tens, the same years in which it polarized, hopefully Brazil, same thing. So it’s like, wait a minute. Rising expectations that dynamics that are unleashed by, by change, um, are very complex and very confusing, but can lead to anger and polarization just as much as inequality it’s unfortunately, you know, uh, damned if you do and damned, if you don’t a bit, uh, you change the country, you’re like, Hey, you know, Lula and recuerdos, I felt like, Hey, I gave a lot to Brazilians.

Why are you so angry at me? Um, but it used to be, you know, when I was in graduate school, um, You’d open the newspaper every day. And there were protests in South Korea, students protest again, and South Korea was like young. Yeah. That’s been going on for 10 years. South Korea had the fastest rate of economic growth of any country from the 1960s to the, to the 1990s.

It’s an economic miracle, South Korea. And it had the angriest population and you’re like, well, wait a minute. Uh, you’re the most successful? Why are you so angry? Because they weren’t getting their share. And the government was trying to keep a lid on it and keep political control and students, and others said, Hey, I’m on a voice.

You know, I’m, I’m educated. I know what you’re doing. And yeah. Okay. I’ve got a nice telephone now in a better flat, but Hey, I want a voice. I want a part of this. And so economic success unleashes forces just as much as economic failure produces negative forces as well.

Turi: but where the middle-class is, um, um, is this new it’s polarized? I mean, everywhere you look, I see another article on polarization or something or somebody decrying it, but is this a, is this a particularly new thing? And if it is new, how is it new?

Thomas : No, it’s not new in nature to, I mean, the nine States, you know, if I recall correctly, 160 years ago entered into a vicious civil war for five years, that was extraordinary. And it represented an extraordinary level of polarization in this country. And so certainly not new, but why aren’t we reading about it so much now?

Why is it as you say, this is a growth stock in today’s kind of ideas industry. I think there are two reasons. First it’s hitting the wealthy, established democracies, much more than people expected. And you know, one minute answer. Why? Because, um, those democracies. Suffered two big strains in the last 20 years. First, a lot of economic stagnation, which created a lot of unsettled working class and middle class people who feel insecure and don’t feel like they’re getting their share and their right and their wages are not rising. Their wealth is not rising. And second, a lot of socio-cultural change 20 years ago.

The idea that. The Irish prime minister was going to be a person who was like that, are you kidding? Lot of social cultural change about abortion women’s rights, LGBTQ, et cetera. And they were both of those things have stirred up wealthy, established democracies to new levels of political temperature. And the second time. Um, the second hand, a lot of developing democracies, the fact is there’s just a lot more democracies in the last 30 years, and there were in most of the 20th century. And so you have a lot of, you know, attempted democracies in the developing world, Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil, et cetera. And so there’s a lot more cases out there. And as those democracies have settled in and tried to. You know, stabilize and become effective democracies. A lot of those countries going back to the founding roofs issue, a lot of those countries were formed out of post-colonial processes that left fundamental rifts that still need to be worked out in the countries either, you know, colonial amalgams that were put together, or, you know, look at me on Mar for example, with its problem, with the Rohingya and how they’ve, you know, Not been doing very well with that and so forth.

So wealthy, established democracies, a lot of new polarization, developing democracies, coming to terms with trying to make democracy work. Those two things together, put polarization on the bestseller list.

Turi: Tom. That’s fascinating. So just to, just to sort of go through those, again, are some of the contradictions which you flagged, we’ve already established the economic, um, Stagnation is not a prerequisite for polarization at all. You talked about South Korea, South Korea, very forcefully, and yet economic stagnation is absolutely a driver of, of, uh, of polarization across the West. Um, ditto, the kind of things that you look for, race divisions, class divisions, um, and identity or religious divisions. They there’s, there’s the whole such a tremendous variety across the, the,

Thomas : You’re British. Think about Brexit. It’s a polarization Stu you know, you probably just spent thousands of hours on the psychiatric couch trying to explain Brexit. It’s got all kinds of identity issues. What is it? What is Britain? What is great Britain? I mean, you know, what is. It mean to be British.

What about identity issues like migration? What about economic issues? Like, Hey, I’m a working class person in getting a fair shake. What about elite TISM versus sort of popular, popular views? Brexit is like a stew of all of these different kind of things, because I can tell you I was shocked. Then I went to London last year and I was walking down by parliament and there were.

People out there demonstrating. I thought it was in the United States who were calling for the death of politicians. They had violent slogans. It was like what happened here? You know, I lived in the UK when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, a very polarizing time in British politics, but it was within a certain boundary was rather traditional polarization. Whereas Brexit produced a level of toxicity. You know, a person was, you know, a member of parliament was killed, um, that I don’t recall from the 80th in quite the same way, because it, it. It stirred up a whole series of deeper identity based roots at a time when Britain was feeling less secure about itself and its place in the world.

Turi: But that’s kind of what I want to get to, because again, if we’re trying to build a taxonomy. Of polarization or a, or a typology of the kind of countries which topple into it. We’ve got such variety here. Just listening to you, talk through the examples that you have. Um, And again, to be clear, you flag right at the beginning that it is a feature of democracy, or there is no hard line that’s you either on one side or the other, but are there certain key?

Are there certain features of democracy? I’m starting to get into the questions as to how we fix this issue of polarization or what needs to be fixed, but are there certain qualities of democracy which exacerbated? I know that you talk about the problems of first past the post politics, which split. Complex political question into blues versus reds or labor versus conservative, et cetera, et cetera. But are there any other features there in the, in the, in the detail you, you, you you’re a lawyer by, by, by, by, by education. Are there elements there that you point to.

Thomas : Yeah, I don’t think I had hoped, you know, we might find like, Oh, here are the three institutional deficiencies. It’s like, why is my car making this funny sound? It turns out it’s the distributor cap. Oh, okay. Um, you know, I’ve got the fixed for you, but it’s, you know, yes. There is a tendency in two party systems that are created through, you know, majority try and district team or whatever.

The particular electrical system that produces the two party system. And in presidential systems. So it comes down to, in Bolivia, do you want, you know, modalities or his party to be elected again or not? It’s this or that, as opposed to the Dutch endless coalition of, you know, eight different parties in a small country forming these complex coalitions and, you know, uh, You can have a dinner party with a Dutch people and every one of them boats for different political parties.

So it’s kind of hard for them to line up on one side of the table or the other. Um, and so yes, presidential is systems and systems that have sort of two party like the UK and the us, I think are more prone to this kind of binary polarization. Um, but. You know, there are other features as well. I think the media is very important.

United States here, you can have two kinds of media that can contribute to polarization. You can have a very privatized media that is subject to, uh, entrepreneurial meters, uh, sort of media behavior on the part of wealthy people like Robert Murdoch, who tend to be very polarizing because that’s how you sell newspapers. Radio and television and so forth. And so if you privatize your media, you’re opening up the media to polarizing actors. I’m not against president media, but you’ve got to think carefully about that in the United States in the eighties and nineties is talk, radio came in and cable television. Uh, the introduction of very polarizing media was very damaging. Uh, so keep that in mind to those in the UK are thinking of taking apart the BBC. Um, and then secondly, it’s not just privatized in the media, but also the alternative of course is a very heavily government controlled, politically controlled in a, in a nasty way kind of media that gets used. So Victor Orban comes in 2010 to power.

One of his biggest projects is to gradually strangle the Hungarian media space to the point today where 80 to 90% of it is safely in government, hands, or friends of the government, private actors who are friends with the government and control it. So either you prioritize it in a way with too little control or the government gets too big of a control on it. And certain politicians use it as part of their Polaroids.

Turi: I want to touch on the question of coronavirus and polarization. Cause I know you’ve done a lot of work on it. Is there any suggestion which we’ve seen, uh, we’ve seen here in the UK, they’ve been suggestions, uh, elsewhere across Europe that actually a coronavirus pandemic, which has reminded all of us that we exist as a society, that we are a community of people that needs to look after each other. Um, Has had some positive impact on the ways in which we see our fellow citizens. Do you see that born out?

Thomas : Yes, but only at the local and community level and sometimes at the symbolic national level, but not in national political life. It’s been startling to me to see how polarizing the pandemic has been in polarized countries. It turns out if you have a country lined up with this camp versus that camp and you toss them almost any challenge they can argue over. And so first I thought, you know, pandemic was kind of like global warming on, on steroids and it’s all gonna happen in one or two years. It’s, uh, it’s a scientific reality. You can’t deny. So let’s get with it. No, it turns out you can argue over it. You can argue over just how big of a threat is it really? And people argued a lot over that. And is that, that level of that threat worth the economic damage that I think your remedies are going to cause, and then it turns out to be a difficult question. What is the right balance? It, isn’t just an awful, an answer of, you know, do this or do that. It’s very, very tricky.

And so both the nature of the threat and the nature of the response are subject to very polarizing arguments because they tend to involve. Kind of basic questions about identity in the sense of what, what I happened to be from a family. That’s, you know, this person says frontline worker, and I’d like to be protected for these reasons. I’m somebody who stays home and works. I have a different risk threshold and different, you know, sort of risk calculus. And so it turned out, there were a lot of divisions in the experience of how the pandemic affected, you know, different people. And so. Suddenly, it was just grist for the polarizing mill.

And you look at United States, independent mix has been extraordinary, really polarizing in this country, even though a majority of Americans do actually agree on at least some elements of it. Brazil, very polarizing, both scenario has used the pandemic as polarizing hammer to just slam the society. We’re not a nation of sissies, as you said recently, um, India. A very polarized country. It has only become more polarized in recent months as Modi feels the need for various reasons to crack down still further. Um, Turkey fought and fought with the mayor of Buddha, uh, mayor of Istanbul over. It’s the right approach. And so everywhere you see a very polarized democracy and then you watch the pandemic unfold.

It has not been, as we say, in the U S a kumbaya moment of let’s put aside our differences and sit around the campfire and agree that, you know, the pandemic’s a bad thing.

Turi: And almost feels like it echoes what you were describing about the politics of grievance, which is that once you’re in, you’ve got to stay in. So if you started, if you started angry about economics, you then move on to your angry about LGBTQ

Thomas : hard to lay down your arms once you’re in a struggle, because why should I be the first one? You know, I don’t see him laying down his arms. Why should I? And each side thinks that pretty, you know, it’s sort of

Turi: As a performative element of this as well. Isn’t that, which is that as you precisely described how political polarization works, there’s a separation of people on either side and you become a little bit liberal or a little bit conservative, everything else sorts around it. You homogenize your opinions in line with your tribal group. Again, not disparaging African tribes, as you said out here, but, um, That, and it feels like any new controversy pops and works as a sorting mechanism.

Thomas : Yes, that’s true. You know, I think we’re living through some change, which we haven’t quite got. Th the feeling for you. We haven’t put our minds around it, which is in an information space that’s completely saturated so that we have accessible to us extraordinary amounts of information all across the range of any topic in order to, for information to rise above that ocean and to be filled, it has to be more noticeable.

You have to stick out. I mean, we’re always sitting around at Carnegie and art. Communications group thinking, how can you be heard? How can we write something? We don’t want to do clickbait. We’re a serious institution, but how are we going to break through the noise on this? And everybody’s always trying to break through the noise these days.

You know, even if it’s a teenager sitting down saying, what can I post on my Facebook page? So I really of be noticed in the school. People can like my photo. They’re not going to just publish some and photo of me baking brownies with my mother. You know, they’re going to do a photo of them doing something they’re not supposed to be doing in a kind of weird way, and they’re going to get a lot of likes for it. And so I think we’re in an age in which the individual, the political actor, the political party, et cetera, are all striving to, to sort of ratchet up. The temperature of what they do in order to be distinguished themselves in this ocean that we’re living in. And so somehow the moderate, the bland, the conventional don’t cut it anymore. And it’s a lot of the reason Donald Trump got elected in 2016, but we could explain a lot of other phenomenon this way as well.

Turi: It’s one of the great disappointments of my life. As I hit middle-aged the centrist dad is not as sexy as I hoped he might be. Um, um, so I, I, I kind of want to take this sort of systemic analysis of yours about social media and what it does and the ways in which we exist in this information ecosystem and, and combine it with, um, your, your, your description of this particular moment in which it.

Yes, I’ve been in the West. A very large segment of society feels like it’s been denied the benefits of economic growth. On the one hand that it’s also, um, being left behind or left to the side or being censored, um, by a very fast acceleration of sort of progressive social politics. Does that. Lennon quote that it’s something like there are, there are years in which nothing happens. And then there are weeks in which everything happens. Um, are we in one of those? Is, are we, is this, is, can you just polarization anchor itself to moments of massive social change? Um, and therefore, could it actually be useful or is it actually just, do we have to just accept it as a feature of one democracy and to the information age in which we live.

Thomas : Well, I think look, most countries that are very polarized, you’ll find periods in which polarization intensifies very quickly they’ll go along and then something there’ll be a brief period in which they really go down that negative spiral and then they’re there and then they either recover from that or they get worse. So there tend to be hotspots of polarization, Donald Trump last four years, definitely a hotspot in American history of polarization Brexit. Definitely a hotspot in the British history of, you know, political dynamics and the hotspots, you know, that feeling like the height of the Brexit thing you thought, can I, somebody just open the newspaper and not have to read another article about Brexit, please?

Can we get to that? Can we get to that moment? You know, I’m fatigued. I had feelings about it, but I just want to move beyond it please. Now, fortunately, it was just a single issue, even as it sucked in all these kinds of emotions and ties to other issues, but in other countries, Hindu, nationalism and India, Sorry, you’re not going to get beyond that.

That’s the history of India. So they’re going to have to come to terms with, do they want to be a Hindu nationalist country or do they want to be a secular progressive country or find a balance between those two? So some polarization struggles are not just a single time. They go through intensive intensifying periods as they’ve been through with Modi in recent years, but they’re on a polarizing dynamic. That is going to last for decades and probably centuries. And that’s true in a number of countries that you mentioned Sudan and, and others. Um, so in many cases, polarization is not just an event or a moment or a particular danger, a particular time. It’s a more systemic condition that really needs to be managed rather than solved.

Turi: Okay, last question, Tom, how does one manage polarization? How do we fix this? How do we perhaps not fix it? Cause fix is the wrong word because as you rightly, as you rightly say, polarization can be wonderful. It spits up. The idea is it ensures that there is a constant renewal of the political discourse, but how does one manage that?

Thomas : Well, three things I would emphasize first focus on your guard, rails, your institutional guard rails. They’re going to keep the competition. He’s got these two boxers, build a ring around them, strong enough to keep them from flying off into the audience and killing somebody. What are the ring around them? One is one is your electoral system. If they can at least agree, every four years or five years, we have to put ourselves up for election or by, by the results. That’s good. Another is the rule of law. There’s a referee, an umpire. They have to actually say, you can’t do that. You cannot hit the guy this way.

That’s not allowed, you know, you’re, you can touch them this way. You can kick them that way, but you can’t hit them that way. And so you’ve got to have the rule of law to say that politicians, there is something bigger than your struggle that our country believes in the song. So an electoral system of real institutional legitimacy and authority.

And the guard rail of the rule, then you need a political system, you know, I could say you need reasonable political leaders. Well, don’t count on that. Uh, nobody living in Washington, like I do, uh, counts on that any more in this country, not a given. So what do you need? You, you do need certain institutional features that will not. Encourage this kind of thing, like opening your system up to no controls over political financing, allowing you know, wealthy political entrepreneurs to come in and polarize the system for their benefit, opening your media up with no holds barred to privatized media with no idea about what that will mean in terms of injecting, uh, all kinds of polarizing dynamics into the system.

So you have to really do a careful institutional review and see what features of your political system and social system are encouraging. And then third. The civil side, the civic side is people gonna realize. You know, at a certain point, yes, it’s sort of fun, polarizing and really feeling I’m on this team and not on that team, that the larger struggle is more important than the victory of the team. And so you’ve got to, you really do have to do bridge building at the community level. People have to learn to talk to each other across size. You need to do things, you know, the famous stepped by Nelson Mandela coming out to the rugby match and cheering for the white. Rugby team that had been South Africa’s national pride to say, you know, we’re all on the same team here.

You’ve got to have individuals, community leaders, local politicians, et cetera, who project messages of common concern, common humanity. We’re in this together, even as the national politicians fight over the big battle. So you create a base in the country that believes in the idea of common experience and common values. So Zoloft guardrails. Political institutional features and civic building from the bottom up.

Turi: A bottom up piece seems to me that, uh, that the trickiest, because you can mandate from top down and all sorts of different ways and they, they’re kind of, that kind of makes that kind of makes sense. It’s tough to do, but, but it, but it, but it sort of makes sense. And it’s an easier play because there are rules or there are not rules and you rewrite the rules of the rules. Aren’t good enough. But that fundamental. Realization that’s necessary in any society to realize that the people on the other side are your most loyal partner in the building of democracy. Because without that opposition, you are not a democracy. Um, that key, that key realization is where I feel again in the UK. On the back of Brexit polarized as it polarizing as it was for us, um, in the U S given what you guys have just been through that Vista feels to me, that piece that is missing and perhaps at some, perhaps it is a media play, perhaps it’s the media’s fault, perhaps the.

Thomas : it’s wild. It’s up to everybody, but you’re right. It’s very, that’s where I’d end on it. Just slightly hopeful note. I think that’s where I think the pandemic has been somewhat depolarizing, you know, I was at the grocery store this morning. When I walked up to checkout, I looked at the woman African-American woman, probably working for 15 bucks an hour.

Um, she’s out there every day in a face mask open. She doesn’t get sick. I. I could say I felt something that I hadn’t felt before when I used to go to the grocery store, you know, talk to her a little bit. So what did I talk to her? But I’d be willing to vote for a minimum wage and the tire, whereas maybe I wouldn’t have before and thought that was inefficient. I’d be willing to see the healthcare system change. You know, the common humanity across lines in our society, the person running the Metro card, the person at the grocery store, the support nurses out there just, and equitable conditions in a lot of hospitals in this country. I think it has opened our hearts and our minds a little bit in ways that’ll help us, help us feel at least some sense of common humanity beneath the level of the political noise.

Turi: Tom, what a great place to end. Thank you so much for walking us through eight super complex topic, which you also managed to do at a global scale. So congrats and thank you.

This page was last edited on Wednesday, 24 Feb 2021 at 10:21 UTC