6.3.2.8 Confrontation and Polarisation

Politicians tend to attack each other in democracies, in their unceasing struggle to gain and retain power.  Their political posturing leads them to adopt a confrontational stance towards each other, rather than taking a centrist approach to negotiate a compromise.  The nature of the confrontations depends upon the number of political parties, which partly depends upon the voting system (6.3.2.4).

Systems of proportional representation allow voters to choose between multiple political parties: either representing the many possible political ideologies and approaches to government (6.2.6), or cultural identities such as Christian Democrat parties in Europe.  The politicians tend to emphasise their party credentials to get elected and they subsequently adopt confrontational postures in coalition governments to differentiate themselves – as when Matteo Salvini turned back a ship of migrants trying to come to Italy: an action for which he faces prosecution.

Two-party systems, such as those in Britain and America which use a ‘first-past-the-post’ system of voting, can polarise the electorate.  America has been described as The Fractured Power, showing “deep divisions in American society, exhibiting precisely the kind of tribal politics—when strict loyalty to a foundational identity (such as race, religion, clan, or region) is the organizing principle of political life within a country—that sets off alarm bells when seen abroad”.  The resulting pattern of confrontation rather than negotiation can either lead to political deadlock or to abrupt policy reversals when there is a change in government.

There is a centrist area of overlap between the major political ideologies and approaches to government, as described earlier (6.2.6.3).  When the U.S. Constitution is working well, Congress approves legislation that falls within the overlap – but now there is little common ground in the polarised condition of American politics.  An Economist article in 2014, If the Republicans win the Senate…., summarised the impact of divisions between the Presidency, the Senate and the House of Representatives over more than 30 years – highlighting moments of complete stalemate in a pattern that continues to recur.

There has been an increasing use of executive orders in response to legislative obstruction in America.  Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders in his first 3 months in office: overturning Barack Obama’s policies on protecting the environment, for example.  Four years later, Joe Biden signed 15 executive orders on his first day in office to reverse Trump’s policies.  This is unsettling internally and it undermines a country’s external relationships, as described in Jonathan Kirshner’s article, Gone But Not Forgotten: describing “Trump’s Long Shadow and the End of American Credibility”.

The polarisation continues, heightened by the “echo chamber effect” of Internet social media that reinforce people’s beliefs, as described later (6.4.2.6), and by partisan news media (6.4.3).  Donald Trump’s supporters form a large group of voters who are behaving like a tribe that won’t accept the wishes of the majority of Americans.  As noted in a blog post on this website, Trump and the GOP, his refusal to leave office and the lies that he has told have split the Republican Party and have undermined democracy.  A Reuters/Ipsos poll in April 2021 showed that a Majority of Republicans still believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump five months after the election.

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