The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before going nuclear, Republicans and Democrats might consider these four lessons from polarized democracies

A demonstrator throws stones at riot police during an antigovernment protest in eastern Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 27, 2014. (Juan Barreto/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

As a number of observers have noted, Senate Republicans and Democrats are playing a game of chicken over President Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. With a base still angry about the Republicans’ earlier refusal to schedule hearings on President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, Democrats are now threatening to filibuster Gorsuch; in response, Senate Republicans are threatening to reinterpret Senate rules, so that a bare majority can call a vote to confirm a new justice.

As someone who has been studying polarized democracies, I think this dynamic looks very familiar. In healthy democracies, opposing sides are seen as political adversaries to compete against and at times to negotiate with. In deeply polarized democracies, the other side comes to be viewed as an enemy needing to be vanquished.

The United States could be heading down that second path. Approving a Supreme Court justice with just one party’s votes would break from a norm of bipartisanship support. As U.S. politics deepens its sharp partisan divide, it increasingly resembles other polarized democracies around the world. In an ongoing comparative study, we find that once voters divide into opposing camps, and political parties refuse to compromise, very different countries face very similar dynamics, resulting in very similar problems.

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Here’s the problem: Once a polarizing electoral logic is in place and the population is divided psychologically and spatially, it is extremely difficult to change the perception of threatening enemy back to political adversary. My research finds that polarized politics carries real risks for democracy: paralyzing gridlock, failed governance, and increasingly concentrated executive power that verges on authoritarianism.

Consider the recent history of three quite different countries: Hungary, Turkey and Venezuela

In Venezuela in 1998, in response to a wave of popular disgust against a political establishment widely regarded as corrupt and inept, Hugo Chávez campaigned on vague promises of national renewal and redistribution of the nation’s oil wealth to the people. Eighteen years later, Chávez’s movement is still in charge in Venezuela, while the country approaches ruin.

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In Hungary, after a decisive 2010 victory, Victor Orban’s government changed the constitution to make elections favor his party even more disproportionately than before, weakened checks and balances, challenged the free press, and — in keeping with the party’s nationalism — built a razor-wire barrier to keep Syrian refugees from crossing into Hungary.

And in Turkey in 2002, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan brought an Islamist party to power for the first time. After several years of confrontations over religious and secular principles and constitutional reforms, Erdogan survived a coup attempt in July 2016. He is now using that as justification to purge dissenters, restrict independent media and launch a campaign for a constitutional referendum in April to further expand the powers of the presidency.

What can we learn from these examples?

1) Polarization rewards extreme positions and weakens centrist moderates

Polarizing leaders and parties need enemies to establish a dividing line between “us” and “them.” They stoke fear of these enemies to keep winning elections. The enemies can be external (immigrants in Hungary, foreign imperialists in Venezuela) or internal (Kurdish terrorists in Turkey, the media in all three, and anyone who does not agree with the leader).

The extremists on either side of the divide then label moderates willing to compromise as “traitors colluding with the enemy” or “sellouts.” (Consider the epithet “RINO,” for “Republican in name only.”) In this way, the center disappears and radical positions dominate, resulting in political gridlock or even violent conflict.

In the United States, Republicans and Democrats may wish to keep this in mind as they move forward not just on Gorsuch but on the range of issues facing the nation.

2) Polarization affects individual perceptions and is hard to reverse once in place

Once a polarized way of thinking seeps in and voters feel deeply divided psychologically and spatially, it’s very hard to reverse.

Research on motivated reasoning helps us understand this problem. Emotions and unconscious desires and fears influence the way we interpret information, especially if we feel threatened. Voters are motivated to eliminate cognitive dissonance by rejecting facts that challenge their worldviews or self-concepts. Polarizing leaders learn that exploiting supporters’ fears and anxieties will win elections — and encourage that motivated reasoning.

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As a result, when the Venezuelan government spins conspiracy theories to explain the nation’s dire problems, its hardcore supporters apparently believe them without question. Similarly, Trump’s birther movement resisted factual information about Obama’s birthplace.

3) Tit-for-tat tactics deepen polarization and often backfire.

An obstructionist strategy deepens polarization and can endanger democracy. Treating politics as a tit-for-tat game may result in being pushed off the field of play. For instance, in Venezuela, the political opposition refused to negotiate with Chávez, and instead tried for three years to oust him from the presidency through both constitutional and unconstitutional methods. When that failed, they boycotted a legislative election — and forfeited control of the Congress entirely to Chávez’s party, giving it the power to make Supreme Court and Electoral Council appointments for the next decade.

When the Venezuelan opposition finally did get control of the legislature in 2016, the pro-Chávez government stripped the legislature’s authority, making it a worthless win.

The current game of chicken in the Senate isn’t so different from these other polarized gambits. Many democracies require a supermajority to approve high court appointments (as well as certain categories of major legislation). The goal is a bipartisan (or multipartisan) consensus that would mirror sentiment in the nation as a whole.

Because the Senate requires only a simple majority of 51 votes, its functional alternative is the filibuster and cloture rule, requiring a 3/5 vote to end debate and bring an issue to a vote. Removing that rule for legislation would turn the Senate into a winner-takes-all institution: If a bare majority united in favor, the minority would be unable to influence nominations and legislation.

4) Opposing a personality, rather than constructing an attractive alternative message, rarely succeeds

Attacking a leader’s personality — rather than arguing about the issues — can backfire. Supporters may rally more fiercely around that leader. And enlisting allies can become more difficult later on, especially if the regime drifts away from democracy and toward authoritarianism.

That’s what happened in Venezuela and Turkey. Opposition leaders tried to demonize Chávez and Erdogan, and factions in the military attempted to remove them from office through coups. That discredited the opponents, and the public rallied around the leaders. When these presidents then used illiberal measures to repress dissent and boost presidential powers — for instance, closing media outlets and removing presidential term limits — the opponents were isolated and divided, and couldn’t build the coalitions needed to resist.

It’s possible to sidestep polarization without either allowing undemocratic behavior or running away from a fight over principles and issues. Here’s what’s required: the courage to negotiate with the other side if a better solution is possible; the open-mindedness to avoid demonizing and alienating those who hold different political positions; the self-discipline to resist tit-for-tat politics; and the ability to focus on the big picture of collective well-being and democratic protections rather than narrow partisan interests or the personality of a polarizing incumbent.

Jennifer McCoy, distinguished university professor at Georgia State University, leads an international research group on polarized democracies. She was a mediator in the Venezuelan political conflict in 2002-2004 and is coauthor of “International Mediation in Venezuela.”