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Opinion | Polarization Pays

Only voters can put an end to it

Lika Chkhetiani studies Political Science at Central European University

Georgia suffers from intense political polarization – this has become a common political talking point domestically and internationally. Polarization is blamed for protracted political crises, the deterioration of democracy, and inefficient public institutions. Not surprisingly, depolarization is one of the key recommendations that the European Union posed for Georgia to receive the EU membership candidacy.

A scholar of political science would find it puzzling, however, that typical features of political polarization, such as strong party affiliation anchored in voters’ social identities, deep societal rifts, or consistent ideological commitments among political parties or their constituencies, are absent. Then, what makes Georgia polarized?

The academic literature on political polarization distinguishes between two types of polarization: ideological and affective (McCarty 2019). As the name suggests, ideological polarization implies that political parties and/or their voters hold extreme positions on ideological issues on a classic left-right axis and moderate views are relatively rare (Dalton 2008). The affective kind draws on social identity theory and suggests that political party affiliation is an important part of social identity, eliciting strong positive emotions toward supporters of the preferred political party and, consequently, negative attitudes toward the opposing party members and their constituents (McCarty 2019). These two types of political polarization can be observed at two levels – mass level and elite level – and it can easily travel back and forth between these two layers (Hetherington 2009). 

What data do we have to assess the presence of these phenomena in Georgia?

According to the results of the extensive study (2021) on the ideological preferences of Georgian voters and political parties, the two main political antagonists – the incumbent Georgian Dream, and the United National Movement – have some ideological differences. UNM is tending to be more liberal and GD more traditionalist. Yet, a significant portion of their views coincide. Their voters have fairly similar ideological preferences. Moreover, opinion polls demonstrate that the majority of the population agrees on key foreign, social, and economic policy issues. It seems obvious, that ideological polarization is not a case in Georgia, either at the level of the masses or the elites.

As for mass-level affective polarization, the latest results of opinion polls show that citizens are so detached from political parties that one can’t credibly make the case for social identities associated with party affiliation.

Although, as some authors argue, there are signs of social cleavages expressed in cultural conservatism and progressivism, they are not so sharp and widespread as to constitute mass polarization. Moreover, these divisions enter the public arena primarily through populist and radicalized politics, which are different phenomena and distinguished from the concept of political polarization, representing a political process in which politics is perceived through terms of “us” versus “them” (Mccoy 2018). 

Looking at recent political events and the behavior of the two major political parties, the signs of party-level affective polarization are strong and consistent. Politicians increasingly use hostile rhetoric, portray rivals and allies with the language of “enemies” and “friends,” depict politics as a zero-sum game based on the principle of “winner takes all,” and refuse to compromise or cooperate. The alarming degree of party polarization was demonstrated during the protracted negotiations mediated by the President of the European Council, which later resulted in the collapse of the ephemeral so-called “Charles Michel Agreement” and exacerbated party animosities.

A high degree of party-political polarization is detrimental to democracy, since it brings about a divergence between the needs of the population and the interests of politicians, diminishes public trust in democratic institutions, increases informal influence on political processes, personalizes party politics, shrinks the space for smaller political parties, and curbs the diversity of political ideas.

But such polarization is not irrational: it can prove beneficial to partisan interests, at least for a time, as it is an efficient tool for mobilizing voters, for shifting blame to rivals, validating political stagnation, and justifying policy failures.

The self-serving potential of political polarization is aptly perceived by the main political parties, especially the Georgian Dream, which successfully strategizes polarization through populist appeals to traditional values and traumatic collective memories such as the August War with Russia and the controversial legacy of the UNM’s being in power.

Since maintaining political polarization serves a practical purpose for the key parties, it is hardly possible that two rivals would ever voluntarily pursue depolarization – unless the popular pressure to the contrary changes their cost-benefit analysis.

Some institutional adjustments, such as lowering the threshold for small political parties to enter parliament, fostering elements of deliberative and participatory democracy, e.g., by introducing consensus-oriented decision-making mechanisms in parliament and other political institutions, and creating new opportunities for citizens to actively engage in political processes, could help somewhat. These are the usual technical – regulatory and institutional – solutions, suggested by the international organizations and partners of Georgia.

But the fundamental change is impossible while the political parties are reluctant to abandon their “polarizer mode” which seems to be already ingrained in their partisan identity. Only voters could substantially alter this behavior, by signaling that the polarization tactic no longer delivers electoral benefits for the parties that use it.

How to boost and channel the demand for cooperative and constructive politics from the – relatively unpolarized – electorate? This must be the key question that well-wishers of Georgia’s democracy should focus on.

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