Short Course: Pernicious Political Polarization and Legitimacy

Pernicious Political Polarization and Legitimacy

Half Day PM (1:30 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.)

We propose a half-day workshop to be held during the APSA conference as a more in-depth treatment of a theme, but not as an instructional course. Recent national votes, from BREXIT to the rejection of the Colombian peace accord to the victory of Donald Trump have highlighted the disruptiveness of unexpected outcomes of national consultations on polarizing issues. This workshop aims to advance knowledge about the causes, consequences, and solutions to severe political and societal polarization in democracies around the world. Highly-polarized societies pose threats to governability, peaceful coexistence, and prosperity. They derive from contexts in which opposing groups question the moral legitimacy of each other, viewing the opposing camp as an existential threat to their way of life or the nation as a whole. The legitimacy of elected leaders or national referenda in such contexts is undermined by the dynamic of extreme polarization: that is, when the natural differences within a democracy become aligned within two camps with mutually exclusive identities and interests. These are highly polarized polities with pernicious outcomes. At the extreme, each camp comes to perceive the “Other” in such negative terms that a normal political adversary with whom to engage in a competition for power is transformed into an enemy posing an existential threat to be vanquished. This workshop brings together Americanists and comparativists studying polarization from a range of perspectives, including social and moral psychology, institutional and electoral rules, and structural grievances and crises. Some of the scholars participate in an international research group analyzing negative polarization in the U.S., Europe, MidEast, Africa, Latin America and SE Asia. (McCoy leads the team; Lebas on Africa; Arugay on SE Asia; Garcia on Venezuela; Handlin on Latin America; Firat cross-nationally; and Abramowitz on the U.S). Another scholar (Hawkins) leads an international group of scholars studying polarizing populism in Latin America and Europe. And others work on the United States or comparisons of polarization in the U.S. and Europe (Campbell and Reifler). The proposed participants are conducting some of the most exciting new research on these issues with methodologies ranging from socio-neuro experimental analysis (Firat) to social and political psychology (Motyl and Johnson) to new survey measures of societal and political polarization to comparative institutional analysis. In terms of solutions, the workshop intends to brainstorm potential means to prevent or ameliorate pernicious forms of polarization, through social psychological interventions, policy choice, institutional/constitutional engineering, media messaging, community interventions, reconciliation and dialogue, or international mediation. The workshop employs short presentations, roundtable discussions, and brainstorming among participants to address the following questions:

  • Is polarization elite-driven or mass-driven?
  • What measures best capture mass-level, societal polarization?
  • What are the social psychological underpinnings of polarization – in terms of moral decision-making, tolerance, authoritarianism?
  • Are institutional/electoral rule changes desirable to ameliorate the negative consequences of polarization? If so, which ones? What are the risks?
  • What interventions at the individual and community level are useful (from community psych, social and moral psych, communication)?

Each of the three sessions within the workshop employs a roundtable format with a moderator asking questions of the listed presenters based on their research findings and generating a discussion among them, with time allotted for participation by audience attendees.

**All Short Courses will take place on Wednesday, August 30 at the APSA 2017 Annual Meeting in San Francisco, CA.**