Friday

12th Aug 2022

Column

It is political parties that are polarising, not citizens

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France will hold elections soon. And like elsewhere in Europe, polarisation seems rife.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the populist tribune of the France's left-wing bloc Nupes, whips up supporters with radical slogans like "Macron Has No Mandate!" and "Reject Half Measures!"

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  • Thomas Jefferson regarded a sense of community as the greatest public good — but was highly distrustful of public opinion

He preaches revolution, while in fact Nupes has many reasonable demands that echo the programme of the moderate, social-democratic Parti Socialiste of which Mélenchon used to be a card-carrying member: better health care, better schools, better public transport, a higher minimum wage, and more ecology.

Meanwhile, the political right sends out ever more radical messages, too.

A right-wing bloc does not exist yet. But the way the leader of the once moderate and centre-right Républicains, Christian Jacob, lashes out against everything and everyone — "Chaos Absolu!", "Echec Total!" — suggests that a common approach with radical-right leaders Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour could be easier to forge than ever.

Have voters become more radical? Is the political centre shrinking?

Two political scientists at the University of Bern, Klaus Armingeon and Sarah Engler, explored these questions in Switzerland in 2015.

Their conclusion remains relevant to us today: political parties are polarising, but society is not. Many citizens, in fact, remain where they once were — right in the middle of the political spectrum.

Polarisation has, in short, become a political strategy. Many Swiss citizens, the researchers found, did not respond to it at all. Only voters of the radical rightwing Swiss People's Party (SVP) and the social-democratic SP did.

The SVP rallies against Muslims, foreigners, the EU and (new) city folk.

The SP, in turn, often campaigns against the rich, multinationals and capitalism.

Rush to the extremes

Both messages resonate mainly with the two parties' own supporters. In 1995, 13 percent of SVP voters were on the far-right side of the party. In 2015, this had more than doubled, to 28 percent. In the SP, nine percent were on the far-left in 1995. Twenty years later, it was 28 percent. Both parties are drivers of political polarisation, pulling their supporters further and further away from the centre.

For the past 20 years, the SVP, Switzerland's largest party since the mid-1990s, always scored between 25 and 30 percent in parliamentary elections — never more. It often initiates referendums with radical questions. Often, the SP is the only party to take a forceful stand against the SVP.

Voters from the political middle hardly identify with this boxing match anymore, losing interest. Often, turnout for referendums dips under 50 percent.

This way, agitated minorities have voted in the past for a ban on minarets and burkas, and approved immigration quotas. Swiss coalition governments, which comprise seven ministers representing four political parties and rely on compromise, have trouble reaching consensus on many issues. Whether it is relations with the EU, neutrality, or Covid measures — they are deeply divided.

The British government's refusal to make the Northern Ireland Protocol work is another example showing how politics has increasingly become a matter of strategy, of polls, and of agitation. The strategy consists of testing if one's supporters "like" something or not — and then adjusting the strategy accordingly.

A collision course against the EU would supposedly help the Conservative Party to consolidate its power. Politics in the UK and elsewhere is less and less centred on ideas or principles than in the past. Party leaders mainly gauge the mood of the electorate. They seldom go against the grain and hardly ever try to convince voters anymore. Political leaders are no longer leaders, but followers.

Hannah Arendt, the German-American political philosopher who narrowly escaped the Nazis during World War Two, told students in Chicago in 1963: "When there is no longer a public spirit, public opinion takes over." In Thinking Without a Banister, a collection of essays she wrote between 1953 and 1975, Arendt explained what public spirit (or community spirit) is: that we all inform ourselves as responsible citizens, then slowly determine our opinions, and that we finally debate them.

In this way, citizens slowly work towards policies that best serve the public interest.

Arendt praises the American statesman and Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, who regarded a sense of community as the greatest public good but was highly distrustful of public opinion.

Jefferson never became a member of any political party, refusing to adapt his opinions to a certain party line as a matter of principle — as if he could not think for himself.

In 1789, in a letter to the author and fellow Founding Father, Francis Hopkinson, Jefferson explained: "I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in any thing else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all."

Unfortunately, this is the problem with many politicians today: that they no longer think for themselves. A dangerous situation.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC, Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This column is adapted from a recent piece in De Standaard.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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