Every election these days seems more consequential than the last.
Oh my god, Lula won in Brazil! Can you believe that Netanyahu just came out on top in Israel–again! Forget about purple America, Blue and Red are tearing the United States apart!
In the days of yore, democratic elections pitted candidates of wildly different philosophies. Think Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter or Margaret Thatcher vs. Neil Kinnock. Christian Democrats battled Social Democrats for their turn in office. The revolving door of electoral politics occasionally ushered in significant swings in governing ideologies, for instance from a welfare state to neoliberalism, which sent countries heading off in very different directions.
These elections could be very important. But they were not existential contests.
Today, by contrast, elections are often less about who steers the democratic system and more about who even believes in a democratic system. In country after country, people are going to the polls to support—or desperately keep out of office—the political equivalent of demolition experts. Voters either really love or really hate these bomb throwers, almost all of them on the far right. The middle ground has shrunk like an island beset on all sides by rising waters.
Democratic societies have always featured a serious amount of polarization. After all, Reagan and Thatcher were polarizing figures, even within their own parties.
But polarization has come to mean something different at this political moment. The worldviews of the respective blocs—no longer left and right so much as democratic and undemocratic—are simply incompatible. How crazy has American politics become when Bernie Sanders and Liz Cheney are in the same bloc? True, poll after poll reveals a lot of common ground in electorates all over the world around domestic economic priorities, for instance, or the urgency of addressing climate change. But radically different approaches to such concepts as “truth,” “expertise,” “government,” and “rights” make policy-making based on this common ground increasingly elusive.
People are even polarized on the issue of polarization! Liberals approach the widening gap in political perceptions with incredulity (“how can so many voters believe the utter nonsense of [fill in the blank]?”). Illiberals see polarization as a political opportunity.
One result of this polarization has been some very close elections. Even where the forces of democracy win, such as the recent defeat of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the electoral margin is so slim that no one can speak of Lula’s “mandate for leadership.” Despite numerous polls that suggested that he’d opened up a sizeable lead over the incumbent president, Lula squeaked by with only 50.9 percent to Bolsonaro’s 49.1 percent.
In Sweden, the right-wing coalition that won the recent elections, with the neo-fascist Sweden Democrats coming in second, actually gained slightly fewer votes (49.1 percent) than the left coalition (49.3 percent) but came out on top in parliament because of the distribution of those votes.
A more extreme example of that disparity has been the United States, where the Democratic Party has defeated the Republican Party in the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections but has either won or lost by a narrow margin in an Electoral College that privileges the votes of more Republican-friendly rural America. After this week’s mid-term elections, Congress remains narrowly divided, though leaning a little more Red.
Such elections between democratic and undemocratic forces are not always close. Take the case of Slovenia, where a center-left party easily drove the Trump-like Janez Janša out of the prime minister’s office back in April. You probably didn’t hear much about this surprising result. Slovenia is a small country. More importantly, the election didn’t fit the common narrative of polarized politics benefitting far-right populist parties.
It’s more likely that you heard this week that Benjamin Netanyahu—an extremely polarizing right-wing politician—has won yet another opportunity to form a government in Israel. Here too, as with all of the recent Israeli elections, the race was close. But it’s extraordinary that Netanyahu, under indictment for three charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust, hasn’t slunk shame-faced into the political shadows. Alas, the politics of outrage and outrageousness have buoyed the electoral fortunes of what previously would have been unelectable candidates.
Few analysts conclude from the defeat of Bolsonaro and Janša that the threat of fundamentally anti-democratic politics is receding. The Israeli election, on the other hand, is seen as cautionary. “As I’ve noted before, Israeli political trends are often a harbinger of wider trends in Western democracies—Off Broadway to our Broadway,” writes Thomas Friedman in The New York Times on Netanyahu’s victory, adding that the most recent elections produced “the most far-far-right coalition in Israel’s history.. a rowdy alliance of ultra-Orthodox leaders and ultranationalist politicians, including some outright racist, anti-Arab Jewish extremists once deemed completely outside the norms and boundaries of Israeli politics.”
It’s a comforting myth that our democracies can be fixed by ending gerrymandering or removing money from politics. Yes, such fixes would certainly help. But fairer maps or fewer TV ads won’t address the growing ideological gulf and narrowing electoral gap between the democrats and the extremists. After all, even countries with relatively sensible political systems like Sweden and Slovenia have fallen victim to this polarization.
The problem runs deeper. Simply put, the extremists have succeeded in polarizing the electorate because a large portion of the voting public in the world’s democracies has lost faith in the key attributes of a modern society: public institutions, scientific expertise, and pluralist politics. Worse, at least some of the fault lies with the political representatives of modernity themselves.
The Far-Right’s Playbook
The polarization of modern politics has frequently divided countries into two nearly equal but opposite blocs. Yoon Suk-yeol, for instance, won the presidential elections this year in South Korea by less than one percent of the votes. The center-left and the far-right in Italy attracted nearly the same number of votes even as neo-fascist Georgia Meloni came out on top. In the recent presidential election in Colombia, Gustavo Petro triumphed over his Trump-like adversary by about three percentage points, a veritable landslide in this era of electoral nail-biters.
However unsettlingly close the elections in polarized societies can be, a larger margin of victory is by no means reassuring.
In Hungary, Viktor Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz party blew away the opposition in this year’s election. He has now ruled over Hungary since 2010, an eternity in democracy years. The indirect vote for president reveals exactly how much Fidesz dominates Hungarian politics: the Fidesz candidate won with nearly 73 percent of the vote.
Similarly, increasingly autocratic populist Aleksandar Vučić won the Serbian presidential race with 60 percent of the vote in last April’s elections. Bongbong Marcos got twice as many votes as his closest challenger in the May contest in the Philippines. And in highly repressive Turkmenistan, the son of the long-time dictator captured nearly 73 percent of the vote compared to, well, it doesn’t really matter in autocratic Turkmenistan who the putative alternative is.
These lopsided victories by the autocratic right, the nationalist right, and the far right are actually more sobering harbingers than the recent victory of Netanyahu. They represent the second stage of democratic decline.
In the first stage, after the illiberal right captures the executive branch, it sets about rewriting the rules of the game to ensure that it stays in power. They do so by limiting constitutional freedoms (speech, assembly), controlling the media, and restructuring the judicial systems. That is the model pioneered by Vladimir Putin after he won the 2000 elections and perfected by Orbán.
Trump started in this direction—and managed to transform the U.S. judiciary beginning at the top—but was thwarted in his larger aims by institutional resistance (his own appointees, Congress, the courts, the media, even some big businesses). Like Orbán, who had a second chance at power when he became prime minister again in 2010, Trump could prove a good deal craftier were he to win in 2024 (especially if he hires craftier toadies). Even worse would be the victory of a Ron DeSantis or Tom Cotton, either of whom knows better how to game the system to enact the policies they want.
All of these illiberals have both benefitted from and contributed to political polarization. Their extremist positions are not often supported by a majority of voters—think abortion or tax cuts for the wealthy. But their appeals to false narratives—“stolen” elections, Satanic globalists, the “Great Replacement” theory of an imminent immigrant take-over—rally a base that might otherwise oppose their specific policy proposals.
One common strategy for addressing polarization has been to find methods for voters to identify common ground. Also popular is somehow reducing the impact of fake news and promoting mechanisms that bring people together across social divides to encourage empathy. So far, these tactics haven’t perceptibly reduced political polarization.
It is also popular to argue that the supporters of extremist politicians are fundamentally irrational. Either they’re “deplorables” or, as Thomas Frank argued in What’s the Matter with Kansas, they’re voting against their own (economic) self-interest.
Certainly some of the supporters of Trump, Bolsonaro, Netanyahu, and Meloni are racist. And some lower-income voters are unwittingly supporting candidates who quite aggressively favor the wealthy.
But an important strand of support for the extremists is rational. Many MAGA voters and their counterparts around the world feel left behind economically by the juggernaut of globalization, which has hollowed out the manufacturing cores of the industrialized world, destroying individual jobs and entire communities. Not surprisingly, these “losers of globalization” feel betrayed by mainstream political parties that embraced this globalization project in the first place. And they are deeply unhappy with the social changes that have accompanied this globalization.
In other words, in the battle between liberals and illiberals, the former ended up undermining their own political position by advancing a certain kind of radical vision, of a world stripped of all barriers to the movement of capital, with weakened national authority over economic decision-making and a relentless focus on carbon-intensive growth. And while economic liberals have pushed this agenda, social liberals have focused increasingly on applying the human rights discourse more equitably. However admirable this latter project, it meant has that many workers who witnessed an erosion of their economic status have simultaneously perceived an erosion in their social status as well.
Redrawing electoral maps, removing money from politics, targeting hate speech, and reducing misinformation on social media are all important tasks. But they do not address these underlying economic problems.
If we’re serious about reducing the influence of extremists, democrats need to refocus their agenda on the economy first, building a rainbow coalition around good jobs in clean industries, creating incentives for plutocrats to invest in public goods (and penalizing them for not doing so), and reestablishing national controls over domestic economies to rein in the influence of transnational corporations and finance.
This refocus on economic interests requires a reframing of socially divisive issues. Immigration would become less about arguments over numbers and crime and more about sustaining and expanding critical sectors dependent on immigrant labor like agriculture, health care, and construction. Climate policy becomes less about closing carbon-intensive industries and laying off those workers and more about delivering new clean energy programs that disproportionately benefit the disadvantaged, particularly displaced workers.
Polarization is an inevitable byproduct of democratic politics. Only dictators and fascists believe in the mythic unity of society. But a standoff between advocates and opponents of modernity is not healthy, particularly when the latter begin to seize political power. To prevent the illiberals from pulling an Orbán and remaking society along anti-modern lines, we modernists must first admit that our project is flawed, perhaps fatally so in the case of climate change.
We must articulate a new economic vision that doesn’t leave so many people behind—or else, soon enough, we’ll be the ones left behind at the polls.