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Is Polarization Necessarily Bad? Lessons from Latin America

Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília and National Council for Scientific and Technological Development

[Editors’ Note: This is one of our biweekly ICONnect columns. For more information on our four columnists for 2021, please see here.]

Polarization is what several political scientists and constitutional scholars have pointed out as possibly the most troubling sign of democratic backsliding. Zachary Elkins, for example, says that “[he] might view divided publics as the single most important factor that threatens and undermine democracy at least in modern presidential systems.”[1] Among the various factors leading to democratic crises, Elkins suggests that “the comparative study of polarization may be the key to understanding the health of democracy more generally.”[2] In environments of high social inequality, polarization tends to be more explosive still, as it helps exacerbate the divide among distinct social groups and affect the capacity of institutions to work as coordination devices, which then fail to deliver incentives for empowering individuals to defend their rights.[3] Moreover, it provides a sense of belonging, while, as King and Smith put it, “[fostering] a very real sense that government is in the hands of elites who care only for themselves, not ‘the people.’”[4] The strategies of would-be autocrats of the current times directly target polarization as a fundamental mechanism of coordination. Polarization turns into a psychological weapon for mutual engagement. But is polarization necessarily bad? The devil might be in the details and in how the political system organizes itself under an environment of polarization.

A phenomenon that is well discussed in the literature is how party systems have been weakened in the face of radicalization through polarization. The movements towards consensus and compromises that are expected of political systems are highly disrupted when those parties are pushed to extremes, if not beaten by new parties that assume such a strategy as their platform. This is what Kim Lane Scheppele, in her the provoking and fascinating paper The Party’s Over, diagnoses in the United States and United Kingdom[5] as well as in multiparty systems in Europe: “in the multiparty systems of France, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy, which have all gone through elections in 2017 and 2018, the weakness of the party system can be seen in the decline of traditional parties and the rise of extremist parties of both Left and Right.”[6] Other cases where the “party system was in shambles,”[7] like in Venezuela and Hungary, illustrate how polarization may turn out really bad for democracy.[8]

It is a common sense that politics is the art of compromises and bargains. Competition is naturally part of the game, and polarization transforms such a competition into a game marked by the lack of confidence that the loser will accept his or her defeat. Short-term strategies would then prevail over long-term ones, because what is at stake is the very survival of that political group, so it is expected that the loser will attempt to do whatever it takes to strengthen his or her grip on power. In this case, there prevails what Chantal Mouffe calls “antagonism”, that is, “a struggle between enemies,”[9] and the final outcome could be the very destruction of the democratic political system. According to this viewpoint, politics should work based on “agonistic pluralism” instead, one with “channels through which collective passions [would] be given ways to express themselves over issues which, while allowing enough possibility of identification, [would] not construct the opponent as an enemy but as an adversary.”[10]

Still, if polarization can raise some incentives for coordination towards a common goal, it does not follow that such a movement should be interpreted as necessarily bad for democracy and that the path towards democratic crisis is certain. If polarization can function as focal point for coordination,[11] there is perhaps something missing in this debate. It is surely a problem if it is adopted as a psychological weapon aimed at undermining democracy, but what if it may help stabilize the political system by coordinating common interests amid a fragmentary reality? In this case, polarization may result in a competitive electoral system where various segments of society join strong political parties or national fronts that may serve as a shield for democracy. A fragmented society and a fragmented political system may be too weak to “react in concert when the regime threatens transgression.”[12] Polarization is certainly a bad omen when, in the end, the “enemy” is an abstract entity such as the system, the elites, the political parties, but it may not that bad if the “enemy” turns out to be a strong and coordinated force that competes with the other in a balanced way. What is more, especially in unequal societies, polarization may represent that coordination force that enables certain voices to be heard at last.

Therefore, the main culprit might not exactly reside in polarization itself, but how coordination can be kept strong in the traditional game of politics. A political system whose polarization continuously leads to gridlock is obviously problematic, but it is even more so if, instead of gridlock, there is a clear path for the dominance of one single political force amid a fragmented reality. In a certain way, depending on how the political system is designed, the first case may force coordination beyond party lines as long as the costs of such gridlock increases, whereas, in the second case, such costs are way too low, so coordination – and thereby compromises with opposite political forces – may not even be on the table. In a context of democratic backsliding, polarization can be thus interpreted as either a second-best or the worst-case scenario.

The debate looks thereby more nuanced, and this is the reason why, especially for comparative studies, polarization in competitive political systems, even if the strategies of would-be autocrats tend to be astonishingly similar, may find challenges when placed side by side with polarization in rather fragmentary and weak political realities. In the first case, polarization may lead to gridlock and, at the extremes, it may dismantle traditional political parties. In the second one, though, it can help consolidate authoritarianism or, paradoxically, coordinate fragmentary interests that may help stabilize political competition and, in some more radical cases, function as a weapon against the “enemy” of democracy. In Latin America, this potential positive use of polarization can be seen in some recent developments.

In Brazil, where political fragmentation is one of the world’s highest, polarization has been pointed out as one major reason for the rise of Jair Bolsonaro as President. He won amid a crisis of political parties and as an outlier to the longstanding stable presidential disputes between the left-leaning Worker’s Party (PT) and the right-leaning Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), so the typical discussion of the damages of polarization would apply. But now all the polls point out that Bolsonaro will very likely lose the next presidential elections in 2022 to former President Lula da Silva (PT), Bolsonaro’s “enemy”. In this case, should Bolsonaro be deemed Lula’s “adversary” or his “enemy”? In Brazil, unlike the premise that party fragmentation may weaken the response to would-be autocrats, it has rather functioned as a shield against Bolsonaro’s most authoritarian impulses. Yet, it has also undermined a more robust parliamentary response to his incremental transgressions of democratic principles. In other words, political fragmentation has fostered political accommodation.

In such a context, political accommodation may be a worse symptom for democracy than polarization itself, which could help coordinate a strong reaction against such a harmful government. Lula is such a strong “enemy” that he has proven so far the only one with chances to coordinate that reaction. No other potential candidate has come even close to Lula’s electoral chances. Some social segments are concerned that Lula may be back, even if they do not support Bolsonaro any longer, but they simply do not gather that, especially in such an unequal society enduring a political and economic crisis, polarization should work as a coordination force enabling certain voices to be heard, not a top-down voice claiming for the support of the masses. Bolsonaro, unlike other populists elsewhere, has his stronghold in the upper classes, and there is no one today with greater appeal and capacity of coordinating the interests of popular masses than Lula. Polarization is a coordination enabler in this context, and, even if it may raise some challenges thereafter, there is a serious battle, one that should gather diverse political mindsets and ideologies in defense of Brazil’s democracy. Political accommodation with what is non-negotiable in a democracy is one of the evils that Brazil has had difficulties to overcome. This was the case in Brazil’s transition to democracy and how it managed the civilian control over the military.[13] It has been now the case with the political system not pushing for Bolsonaro’s impeachment. It should not be the case again once Bolsonaro’s years are over.

Argentina provides another interesting example, even if the current situation after the primaries this month looks a bit shakier. The country has long been very politically and economically unstable, but in recent years two leading political fronts have competed with each other, the left-leaning Frente de Todos, currently in power, whose stronghold resides in peronismo, and Juntos por el Cambio, the right-leaning political front of former President Maurício Macri’s 2015 election. María Esperanza Casullo argues that “these two alliances accounted for 88% of the votes in the last election and continue to look sturdy as mid-terms approach – a surprising scenario in a country prone to crises and breakdowns since transitioning to democracy in 1983.” This stability may collapse, as one worrisome outcome of those mid-term congressional primaries may be further polarization in congressional elections in November and the rise of a far-right candidate, Javier Milei, as a potential presidential candidate next year. A certain degree of polarization helped build two national fronts competing with each other and stabilize the political system, so it fostered some coordination where previously there was little. However, longstanding political battles and persistent economic crisis may lead to some sort of backsliding Some polarization was needed as a coordination enabler, thereby stabilizing the system, but too much polarization, especially in such conditions, may lay the groundwork for its own disruption. The balance in this case is quite a challenging endeavor.

Chile is also a fascinating case where a rather stable political system between two strong coalitions in the center-left (Concertación) and center-right (Chile Vamos) has endured growing polarization. Sergio Verdugo argued that “from a relatively disciplined two-coalition system, Chile shifted to a multiparty system with undisciplined parties, making the President less likely to be able to build a majority coalition, polarizing legislative debates… Piñera’s administration is currently dealing with the most polarized and fragmented scenario since the pre-dictatorship years.” In some respects, this phenomenon has also been seen in Brazil, but the interesting point in this case is that polarization may have helped catalyze the movement towards a new Constituent Assembly, a long sought-after development that was visibly blocked by that previous stable political arrangement. Polarization seems to have worked as a coordination enabler to bring certain voices to be heard, and the very design of the Constituent Assembly and its composition speak volume of this phenomenon. It certainly raises new challenges for the future stabilization of the constitutional system, but perhaps without such coordination Chile would be replicating its strategies of indefinitely postponing this encounter with the future.

Polarization is, as Elkins argues, key to understanding the health of democracy more generally,”[14] but comparative constitutional law and comparative politics should be aware of the power of coordination as a fundamental weapon for democracy. If polarization can be used as a successful psychological weapon to coordinate interests against democratic institutions, then it can also be reshaped to defend it. Polarization may be an important mechanism for bringing people together in such a competition, who can “react in concert when the regime threatens transgression.”[15] Especially in unequal societies, it may also be a fundamental device for enabling voices to be heard at last. Polarization may be a major factor explaining why “the party’s over,[16] but it may also be a major reason why parties are back. As various fascinating topics in comparative politics, polarization offers a myriad of controversies and uncertainties. But it should not only be interpreted as the bad guy in town. After all, if the devil has many tricks, so do the angels.

Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, Is Polarization Necessarily Bad? Lessons from Latin America, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Sept. 22, 2021, at:

[1] Z Elkins, ’Is the Sky Falling? Constitutional Crises in Historical Perspective’ in MA Graber, S Levinson, and M Tushnet (ed.), Constitutional Democracy in Crisis (Oxford University Press, 2018) 53.

[2] ibid, 65.

[3] See B Weingast, ’Designing Constitutional Stability’ in R Congleton and B Swedenborg (ed.), Democratic Constitutional Design and Public Policy Analysis and Evidence (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2006) 345.

[4] D King and RM Smith, ’Populism, Racism, and the Rule of Law in Constitutional Democracies Today’ in MA Graber, S Levinson, and M Tushnet (ed.), Constitutional Democracy in Crisis? Oxford University Press, 2018) 469.

[5] KL Scheppele, ’The Party’s Over’ in MA Graber, S Levinson, and M Tushnet (ed.), Constitutional Democracy in Crisis? Oxford University Press, 2018) 508-509.

[6] ibid, 509.

[7] ibid, 500.

[8]  ibid, 497-507.

[9] C Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (London; New York, Verso, 2000) 103.

[10] C Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox (London; New York, Verso, 2000) 103.

[11] See Weingast (n 3), 345.

[12] ibid, 345.

[13] See EP Meyer, Constitutional Erosion in Brazil: Progresses and Failures of a Constitutional Project (Hart 2021)

[14] Elkins (n 1) 65.

[15] ibid, 345.

[16] Scheppele (n 5)

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Published on September 22, 2021
Author:          Filed under: Analysis

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