University of Chicago

The Ambiguous Role Polarization May Play by Isabet Tranchin

Political polarization is often cited as a negative, and occasionally as a competitive positive, for a democracy. Polarization in the United States has become a buzz word that occurs often in discussion about the current political climate, both online and offline. But there are also discussions about whether contemporary polarization is as polarized as people fear, and if it is, is it a cause of erosion or is it a canary in the mine shaft? Political polarization is too versatile a condition to be prescribed blame for a lack of plurality or public trust in a democracy. Putting any causal claim on polarization will be a difficult task for any researcher.

The Pew Research Center looked into polarization in American politics, and found that people who were either consistently left or right on the political spectrum pulled information from different places, rarely mixing. Interestingly enough, the left and the right do not rely on media in the same ways, for example people on the left tend to pull from several news sources while the right cite Fox News as their major news source. Despite how they ingest media, people who are consistently left or right do not have much overlap in news sources. But it is difficult to know whether this difference in information streams causes polarization, is a symptom of polarization, or perhaps connected with polarization in a larger picture of politics in the United States.

Polarization, if it is a cause, can also lead to different outcomes for a democracy, even making it more robust, in a myriad of different contexts around the world. [1] Polarization is not just about less centrists in a society, but a way to put a major spotlight on how democracies fair with clear ‘us vs. them’ relations among the populace. These power struggles can be present in any democracy, but democratic norms such as plurality in political representation, peaceful transitions of power and party restraint can be strained when ‘us vs. them’ mentalities are strong. But as McCoy et al find, their definition of polarization can lead to either gridlock, democratic erosion under new elites, democratic erosion with old elites or a reformed democracy. Gridlock may ring familiar for denizens of the United States, and democratic erosion under elites matches the behavior of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, but despite the different outcomes, both cases had political leaders using polarizing language. This is either to appeal to splits already present, or create those splits in the national discourse. And democratic futures are not set, democracies can survive and even thrive after experiencing political polarization. But the factors that determine how well a country can manage polarization require future research.

In the meantime, discussions surrounding political polarization and democratic erosion, or even collapse, should exercise caution when talking about causality. Not only is the existence of a causal relationship between polarization and democratic erosion uncertain, but how polarization would affect erosion is a question that we still need to investigate.

[1] McCoy, Jennifer, Tahmina Rahman, and Murat Somer. 2018. “Polarization and the Global Crisis of Democracy: Common Patterns, Dynamics and Pernicious Consequences for Democratic Polities” in Special Issue on Polarization and Democracy: A Janus-faced Relationship with Pernicious Consequences. American Behavioral Scientist (62)1: pp. 16-42.

Photo provided by Isabet Tranchin


  1. Alison Gerzina

    May 9, 2019 at 9:31 am

    This post is very interesting and actually something I have recently spent some time thinking about and researching on an admittedly superficial level. As you rightly stated, polarization can have both positive and negative affects on participation in politics and people’s perception on the efficiency of their governments. And your suggestion for future research on whether polarization leads to erosion is compelling and valid. Where I split from your analysis is in discussing the general causes of polarization among people. Polarization is a natural symptom of a democracy given its acceptance and toleration of a plurality of views and beliefs. Ultimately, I don’t think the sources of polarization in information seeking and gathering necessarily plays as significant a role in the state of polarization in a country as you suggest. Also, I think causality will be easier to assess than you suggest. A qualitative study on polarization that examines surveys on perceptions of polarization and strength of democracy indexes can be very illuminating. Obviously, other factors will play a role, but given the highly specific survey data conducted by various institutions should make pinpointing the impact much easier. In addition, I think it wise to really focus specifically on how polarization impacts voting behavior and candidate choices, as voters in a representative democracy directly choose their leaders; if polarization affects decision-making, then there would necessarily be an impact on voters when deciding between a divisive candidate or a unifying one. But again, further research is absolutely warranted. It is vital to understand the causes of breakdown if we are to protect and strengthen democracies in the future.

  2. Kyle Hewitt

    May 15, 2019 at 4:10 pm

    I enjoyed your section on the Pew Research Centers data on left and right wing people. I find it interesting that leftists find information from multiple sources while rightists typically stick with Fox news. It is difficult to say whether the lack of overlap in media information is the root for polarization in a society. However, the influence of media information has a greater impact on how Americans view politics. The media sources are meant to provide nonpartisan information on politics to inform the public so they can accurately check the government with vertical accountability. The investigation into American polarization should be an important question political scientist research in these next upcoming years to ensure our democratic institutions are strong and will withstand democratic backsliding.

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