30th Jan 2023


Polarising opinion: is optimism about polarisation in Europe warranted?

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Many people are concerned about the growing polarisation of society. Between left and right, between 'woke' activists and conservatives, between city dwellers and country folk, or cosmopolitans and nativists. Some fear the divides keep on growing.

But is it really that bad? Three recent academic studies suggest that all is not yet lost. Better even, they see plenty of reasons for optimism.

Conspiracies on the decline

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The first study focuses on popular belief in conspiracy theories in Switzerland. It was published in July by the Institute for Delinquency and Crime at the Zurich Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften.

During the pandemic, conspiracy theories could be heard and read all over Europe. The virus was said to have come from a laboratory, to have been caused by 5G networks, or to be a perfidious plot by Bill Gates to forcefully vaccinate everyone. Some feared we were re-descending straight into the Middle Ages.

The Zurich researchers discovered nothing of the sort. In 2018, they found, 36 per cent of all Swiss believed in conspiracy theories. But by 2021 that number had dropped to 28 per cent. This year, it remains at that level. While 28 per cent is still a lot, the common assumption that citizens are increasingly charmed by conspiracy theories does not seem to be true.

According to the researchers, supporters of conspiracy theories suddenly became visible during the pandemic — much more than before. Across Europe, they loudly protested against vaccines, obligatory masks and other Covid measures. But precisely because they were loud and radical, other citizens distanced themselves from them.

Dirk Baier, the director of the Zurich Institute, expects the remaining adherents to become even more radical and extreme — and as a result, he thinks general acceptance of these theories will continue to decline. Swiss citizens believing in conspiracy theories "are already somewhat older and insecure, and have a rather pessimistic world view," he told Swiss television. A dying breed, then.

Derivative polarisation

These findings are consistent with German and US studies that have identified two groups: first, the Europeans and Canadians who, living in a political system based on consensus and compromise and reading traditional media, are less prone to believe in conspiracy theories. And second those living in the US, the Philippines or Hongkong, countries where compromise and consensus are less central in politics and where the media are deeply polarised. Interestingly, the only Western country in that group is the US.

Earlier this year Steffen Mau, a sociologist at Berlin's Humboldt University, came to a similar conclusion in an essay for the journal Merkur. "European society is much less polarised than people often think," he recently explained.

Unlike sociologists like Andreas Reckwitz, who see a growing divide between 'anywheres' and 'somewheres' and between people in cities and the countryside, Mau says these differences between opposing groups cannot empirically be substantiated. After having researched citizens' attitudes and opinions for many years, he finds it increasingly difficult to 'label' people. Most people turn out to be hybrids, belonging to several different groups simultaneously: they are both trans and right-wing; they are vegan and drive polluting SUVs.

In fact, Mau says, the main trend he sees is citizens becoming increasingly liberal in their views. Even when it comes to 'controversial topics' like migration and gender issues, opinions are changing fast.

Left-wing cosmopolitans, for example, rarely oppose border controls anymore. Among right-wingers, there are very few climate change deniers left. And while twenty years ago, many did not accept homosexuals and transgenders, now most do.

The issues Western societies are currently debating, sometimes fiercely, are mostly derivative questions by now: Not climate change as such, but "who pays for it?" Not "Should we accept transgenders?" but "Should we reserve two hours per week in public swimming pools just for them?" Some argue we should, others say transgenders should get the same treatment as everyone else. "So there is a conflict," Mau says, "but it is not about equal treatment anymore. Many agree on that by now. These are follow-up discussions, rather." In his view, the big, divisive battles on these issues are almost over.

Cosmopolitans are everywhere

The third study tempering fears of polarisation in Europe is by Dirk Konietzka and Yevgeniy Martynovych, from the University of Braunschweig in Germany. They focused on the gap between people in cities and people in the countryside — the new educated, liberal middle class versus the supposedly more backward, less educated rural dwellers. Their conclusion is that this gap is not widening at all. In the Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie they recently wrote that the new cosmopolitan middle class is actually growing everywhere — both in cities and in the countryside.

This growth certainly does create a gap with citizens who are disadvantaged in terms of education and opportunities. But, unlike before, this is not a divide between urban areas and rural areas but rather a divide within both cities and the countryside. According to the two Braunschweig researchers, cosmopolitans are becoming more numerous everywhere, including in provincial towns and villages.

How come then is the idea still so prevalent that societies are increasingly polarised?

It may have to do with the fact that European societies are changing fast. Whenever this happens, 'political entrepreneurs' tend to emerge, seizing the opportunity to capitalise on it. They try to form new, small but powerful communities by whipping up political dramas with lots of emotion and maximum demands, often financial.

Angry Dutch farmers opposing new laws restricting nitrogen emissions this summer were one example. They dumped cow dung on busy highways and organised intimidating 'visits', on tractors, to ministers' homes. Another example is a tiny group of German climate activists gluing themselves to the pavement or to paintings in art galleries. News media love reporting on this kind of commotion and extremism, reinforcing a powerful image of deep rifts in society.

It's just part of life

So maybe, what we are looking at nowadays in Europe is a political polarisation that is inevitable — and has always been inevitable — in societies undergoing rapid change.

Functioning, healthy democracies should be able to deal with it. The studies cited above suggest that this is exactly what is happening: democracies are in the process of tackling it, each in their own way. Coping with multiple transitions, they try to solve problems and bridge divides.

This is what democracies are for: to make sure different groups in society do not go at each other's throats. In a way, it is business as usual. These processes can be painful and scary sometimes, but Europeans should not despair: so far, their track record is rather good.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a correspondent and columnist for NRC Handelsblad, Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a column in De Standaard.


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


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