How socio-political polarization erodes democracy

On February 13, the regular meeting of the Contemporary Issues in Political Science Research Seminar was held at the Faculty of Social Sciences. Associate professors of the School of Politics and Governance Ekim Arbatli and Dina Rosenberg presented the results of their research ‘United we stand, divided we rule: How socio-political polarization erodes democracy’.

Although there is a broad consensus among political scientists that socio-political polarization is detrimental to democracy, very few empirically investigate the causal links between polarization and democratic erosion. Most studies use diversity measures that fail to capture contemporary polarization, i.e., when society is divided into two large hostile camps. 

Ekim Arbatli and Dina Rosenberg address the gap. Theoretically, they demonstrate that one channel through which polarization erodes democracy is by increasing voter intimidation by the government. This is for two reasons. First, polarization increases animosity between ‘enemy camps’, making voters more willing to accept illiberal democratic measures, such as voter intimidation, against the opposition. Second, polarization lowers coordination costs for political leaders, who now need to intimidate only a small part of opposition voters in order to win.

The authors hypothesize that, ceteris paribus, in democracies socio-political polarization should increase government intimidation of voters. Empirically, they create their own measure of socio-political polarization based on Joan Esteban and Debraj Ray’s widely accepted measure of polarization and test our hypothesis on panel data. In addition to the regression analysis, authors offer anecdotal evidence from Turkey, Hungary, and the United States.

Presentation of the report:

Arbatli & Rosenberg. United we stand, divided we rule (PDF, 793 Кб)