Ideas on Europe

Extreme polarisation reduces support for democracy

©European Elections 2014 Extreme polarisation reduces support for democracy
©European Elections 2014

Every Monday, a member of the international academic association ‘UACES’ will address a current topic linked to their research on euradio.

Lisa Janssen, you are a PhD candidate at Ghent University, and you are working on a topic that is of crucial importance in a year that is full of elections in democracies around the globe.

That’s right. And one crucial element of a democratic election is “loser’s consent”, the losing party’s willingness to voluntarily accept the election result, even though it might not have been the outcome for which they had hoped. We had a good illustration four years ago, when a crowd of Trump supporters attacked and invaded the Capitol building in an attempt to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. A similar attack happened in Brasilia, two years ago, with the violent attacks by Bolsonaro supporters of federal government buildings.

The United States and Brazil are both societies with a very high level of political polarisation, and it seems that these two phenomena – polarisation and losers’ consent –are incompatible.

But a minimum of polarisation is necessary in a democracy!

You are right. But when political polarisation becomes extreme, citizens divide into camps with profoundly different, perhaps irreconcilable, worldviews. As a result, political opponents and partisans can come to treat each other with contempt and hostility. They tend to perceive their political opponents as immoral, evil – and even as a threat to the nation. In other words, the political opponent is no longer a legitimate adversary but an enemy that must be vanquished.

How do you study the impact of polarisation on loser’s consent?

In a recent research article I used data from the 2015 and 2019 general elections in the UK to analyse the impact of elections on citizens’ satisfaction with democracy. In both elections, the Conservative Party gained a majority of seats in the House of Commons, allowing them to govern without the need for a coalition partner.

My study looks into two specific sub-types of political polarisation, which are “affective polarisation” and “perceived ideological polarisation”.

“Affective polarisation” is citizens’ tendency to dislike and feel hostile towards the political opponent, while holding favourable attitudes towards their own political camp. By contrast, “perceived ideological polarisation” evolves around ideological divides. High levels of perceived ideological polarisation indicate that citizens view the policy attitudes of competing parties as being diametrically opposed.

So what does your data analysis allow you to conclude?

It shows the impact of polarisation on the satisfaction with the functioning of democracy. Let me explain. Unsurprisingly, we can see that electoral winners become more satisfied with the way democracy works. And the opposite is true for electoral losers, who, on average, become less satisfied.

More importantly, however, the results reveal that polarisation exerts a strong influence on citizens’ response to the election result. Polarised losers experience a significant drop in satisfaction with democracy after their defeat. This is true for both types of polarisation. But it's not only the losers who are affected. Polarisation also seems to amplify the euphoria of the winners, who show a stark increase in democratic satisfaction.

And when you compare these trends with 2019, you can see the same effects, only much stronger. This suggests that polarisation is playing an increasingly important role in citizens’ response to election results.

What do these findings mean for the stability of democracies?

Democratic stability is dependent on the consent of electoral losers. Retaining the political support of electoral losers, their faith in the democratic regime, is vital. But strongly polarised voters are less likely to simply accept voluntarily unfavourable election outcomes.

Clearly, there is reason to worry. We see not only that losers’ consent might be more difficult to obtain in times of deep polarisation, but also that polarised citizens' levels of political support are unstable – they could flourish or crumble, depending on the election outcome.

Given the high levels of polarisation in many countries across the globe, I anticipate that in substantial proportions of the population the level of support for democracy itself may become more fragile and volatile, especially around election times. And this tendency is not limited to the United States and Brazil.

Many thanks, Lisa Janssen, for sharing your research findings with us. I recall you are a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Ghent, in Belgium.

A first text version of this contribution has been published on The Loop, the blog of ECPR, the European Consortium for Political Research.