Political polarisation refers to the increasing divergence of political attitudes, opinions, and beliefs between different groups or individuals within a society. It typically involves the division of people into opposing ideological camps, often with a growing sense of hostility toward those who hold differing views.
Political polarisation is best documented from the French revolution, a time of significant economic turmoil. Within France, the principle of legal equality was introduced, resulting in the centralization of power in Paris. French politics was permanently polarised: ‘left’ and ‘right’ were the new terms for the supporters and opponents of the principles of the Revolution. The Conservatives or the “Right Wing” had more orthodox ideas, resistant to radical change, while the Liberals were more progressive, promoting equality and democracy.
Across nations simple ideological differences have resulted in major divisions. In India, polarisation is deeply intertwined with religion stemming from the late 19th-century divide between those advocating for India’s secular identity and proponents of Hindu nationalism. It can be traced back to when India gained its independence in 1947. Linguistic and cultural divides fueled conflict, the most notable example being the India-Pakistan Split.
Very often it is the leaders of these nations that propagate these divisions. Take the case of Donald Trump. The Pew Research Center stated that he exploited biases and differences to secure Republican loyalty, significantly deepening divisions between Republicans and Democrats during his presidency. Republicans and Democrats were not only at odds regarding Trump’s job performance but also had fundamentally contrasting interpretations of his character and personality. In a 2019 survey, over three-quarters of Republicans expressed that the president’s words evoked feelings of hope, entertainment, information, happiness, and pride. Conversely, even larger proportions of Democrats indicated that the same words often triggered feelings of concern, exhaustion, anger, insult, and confusion.
However it is unfair to pin these deep divides entirely on the leaders. Social media is a significant amplifier of divisions. A 2017-2018 experiment by Mr. Bail, a sociologist at Duke University with 1,220 American Twitter users found that exposure to opposing views didn’t moderate opinions; instead, it pushed Republicans further right and Democrats further left, increasing animosity. Social media does this by amplifying individuals’ ability to present more extreme versions of themselves. The engagement-driven algorithm prioritises extreme content, overshadowing posts that bridge political divides, ultimately pushing people further apart.
Yes, almost wherever democracy exists, polarisation exists, starting from the developed countries like the United States, to the developing ones like Egypt. But how is polarisation disseminated among people and affect them? Why is political polarisation such a pressing issue? The consequences of political polarisation include a significant decline in civil discourse, both in personal interactions and within governance, where evidence-based policies often give way to party ideologies, reducing efficiency in decision making. This divisive environment has also fostered the emergence of populist movements, further distancing people from mainstream politics. Media outlets, acting as echo chambers, reinforce each individuals’ existing beliefs, deepening ideological divisions through confirmation bias. As a result, society experiences heightened tension and anxiety, adversely affecting the mental health of many and leading to a more fractured and anxious social landscape.
Reducing political polarisation involves several key steps. It’s crucial to educate people about media literacy and encourage respectful discussions. Centrist policies and civic education can help bridge ideological gaps. Promoting cross-partisan alliances and community engagement is also essential, including crafting policies that are reached through compromise and mutual understanding. Leaders should prioritise the nation’s well-being over partisan interests.
In a world where political polarisation is a common thread, it’s clear that sharp differences in ideology can leave deep impacts. From the French Revolution to today, we’ve seen how leaders and social media can both stoke the fires of division. The consequences, from less civil discourse to inefficiencies in governance and the rise of populism, are clear. To address this, we need to emphasise media literacy, respectful dialogue, centrist policies, and civic education. Ultimately, it’s all about understanding diverse viewpoints and preserving democratic values to find common ground and build a more unified, resilient society.
Shivi Vikram – AS Level – CS International.
Cover Illustration – Shri Sanjith – Grade 10, CS Academy.