What identity does democracy need? The necessity and danger of political polarisation

Simon Bein postulates a new perspective on the multiplicity of understandings of democracy and political identities in democratic societies. He argues that democracies which recognise and balance competing political identities are less polarised

Conventional wisdom holds that democracies must increasingly admit the legitimate simultaneity of different political identities. It also holds that it is the overarching identity of any plural democracy to balance this necessary inconsistency as an essentially contested concept.

Identity conflicts and polarisation as threats to democratic practice

In the transition from autocracies to democracies, the peaceful transfer of power following democratic elections is the litmus test of consolidation. For our current forms of (liberal) democracy, the change of power through elections is also still the most important mechanism of conflict resolution. In this respect, recent events in the USA are worrying for democracy, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, among others, have shown. High polarisation threatens democratic government and stability. Politics becomes a zero-sum game, and electoral defeat is declared an impending 'apocalypse' which must be avoided at all costs. We lose sight of possibilities to cooperate and engage in concrete problem-solving.

Polarisation is a process of de-differentiation, or social sorting. Social lines of conflict and differences condense into one major division. People's opinions and identities harden at the margins, while they abandon the political centre. People have fewer physical encounters with members of the other political camp. And this, in turn, increases their willingness to intensify conflicts.

In the process of political polarisation, people's opinions and identities harden at the margins, while they abandon the political centre

According to V-Dem, political polarisation has been growing steadily in Western Europe and Northern America since the early 2000s. However, there are also countries where polarisation is less pronounced, and we cannot as yet see any obvious divisions. The Scandinavian democracies are exemplary. Polarisation is also low in Japan, and in Germany, a new study reveals broad consensus on many policy issues (and, indeed, on defending democracy, as recent protests show).

Democratic identity

The extent of actual polarisation differs between democracies. Why is that? My answer lies in democracies' varying capacity to balance specific political identities.

So, what is democracy? There is no single answer to this question, as the many contributions to this series illustrate. Following Josiah Ober, democracy means, first and foremost, the rule of the people. From this, it follows that no statement can be made about associated moral or ideological underpinnings. The history of democracy shows that there exist very different answers to the question 'What is democracy?', from the Greek polis to central Italian republics and socialist utopias. Nevertheless, the connection between democracy and liberalism became hegemonic after 1945. Still, liberalism and democracy are not the same thing.

There exist very different answers to the question 'What is democracy?', from the Greek polis to central Italian republics and socialist utopias

Hence, when talking about democracy as a political order, we cannot permanently evade discussion of how the democratic principle is organised (or could be organised differently). Therefore, I argue that it is the identity of democracy to resist permanent and hegemonic appropriation. Democracy must remain open to the interplay of different political identities and their answers to the question: what constitutes democracy?

A liberal political identity, for example, focuses on individual freedom, non-interference by the state, and universal access to the political community. A republican political identity, on the other hand, views politics from a collective perspective. It looks for opportunities to achieve the common good and for positive freedom through social equality. A competitive democracy must weigh this up and discuss its relative merits.

Balancing contradicting political identities

The dominance of any specific political identity is a source of dysfunctionality for democracy. The tension between liberal and republican identity a classic and still-powerful dualism in democratic theory supports this thesis. My findings confirm that a low dominance in favour of one or the other political identity generates lower affective polarisation.

For instance, polarisation is lowest in many Scandinavian democracies, where both liberal and republican elements are particularly pronounced. In many of those political cultures, people don't see strengthening social equality as incompatible with individual freedom and personal autonomy. Instead, both principles have a common and balanced history in democratic competition.

In cultures where political polarisation is low, people don't necessarily see strengthening social equality as incompatible with individual freedom and personal autonomy

Hegemonic dominance of a specific political identity, the liberal paradigm of which a great amount of literature has discussed, violates the openness of democracy. It also violates the procedural participation of all political identities, and their understandings of democracy.

The dominant liberal political identity has become dysfunctional and unable to keep political communities stable. An overemphasis on individuality is eroding social cohesion. At the same time, neglecting individuality violates the core principle of self-efficacy and restricts peoples opportunities in a pluralistic society. However, this does not discredit entirely either view of democracy! Furthermore, problem-solving capacities in the face of current mega challenges, from the isolated perspective of a single paradigm, remain limited. Andreas Reckwitz also points this out in his 2021 book, The End of Illusions.

Strengthening democratic identity

Three elements can help strengthen democratic identity and avoid the dangers of US-style political polarisation. First, democratic politics at the local level allows us establish links between political camps, and to meet to discuss joint problem-solving. Such meetings would allow citizens to express appreciation for local elected representatives and volunteer politicians in the municipalities.

Second, democratic parties must connect more closely with parliamentary decision-making mechanisms. Democracy still only works with political parties. They therefore play an important role in strengthening democratic identity by respecting the boundaries of the game.

Third, political communication and polarising sharpness in the public sphere is central. In Bavaria, ahead of the 2023 state elections, a deputy prime minister cried that 'ordinary people must take back democracy'. This suggests a dangerous distance between the demos and the system, but also between rhetoric and reality. Citizens are just as responsible as elected representatives and politicians for preserving democratic identity.

No.108 in a Loop thread on the Science of Democracy. Look out for the  to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Simon Bein
Simon Bein
Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics, University of Regensburg

Simon holds a PhD in political science from Regensburg University and is currently a postdoctoral researcher there at the Chair of Comparative Politics (Focus on Western Europe).

His main research interests are identity conflicts and polarisation, political culture, empirical and comparative studies on democracy, democratic quality and the crisis of democracy, and political parties.

Simon's work has appeared in several peer-reviewed journals, including the German Journal of Comparative Politics and the German Political Science Quarterly.

Identit瓣t und Demokratie: Polarisierung und Ausgleich im Spannungsfeld von Liberalismus und Republikanismus

Identity and Democracy: Polarisation and Balance in the Conflict between Liberalism and Republicanism
Springer VS, 2023 (German edition)

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