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Politics isn't about scoring points against the other side

Great leadership involves cooperation and compromise

Anyone who has argued with anybody will tell you that trying to change someone's mind is difficult. When you are of course most definitely right (as always), and they are most definitely wrong; arguments are frustrating. Even having the facts on your side doesn't matter. Odds are arguing will only entrench their views. Unfortunately division is common. Common ground however is increasingly less common, and is hard to find if we don't look for it.

Political polarisation is challenging the functioning of democracies and undermining societal cohesiveness. With elections coming up in the United States, New Zealand and other countries too, now is a good time to talk about polarisation and retaining an open mind. People can hold a variety of views that differ between left and right so its difficult to understand someone's opinion simply from who they support. I have written in the past about echo chambers and extremism. In this post I will explore some of the causes and impacts of polarisation.

It is not immediately obvious to me that people are deeply divided if we take a holistic view. Emotive issues such as migration or COVID-19 lockdowns hijack discourse and are presented as if there are deep divisions. However, if we take a big picture view there is often broad agreement on what a good society looks like, e.g. that human rights are important and people need the basics like food and water. Of course I have washed over a lot nuance here - people differ greatly on how these things should be achieved. But generally speaking there is more that unites than divides. Unfortunately that is rarely the starting point.

Structural and socio-economic factors are driving polarisation

Political parties in and of themselves are meaningless but drive polarisation through affiliation. The party system splits the electorate into rival camps. Even if there is little that separates people the artificial difference created by party affiliation is a source of disagreement. The electorate can become even more polarised as parties jockey for voters and take positions that appeal to some but not others. Red and blue are just colours but they take on a life of their own as we make assumptions based political affiliation.

The choices we make around the news we consume and who we spend time with shape our views. If what we read says that raising taxes is a bad thing, and people in my circle hold a similar view, we aren't likely to consider alternative perspectives. Algorithms and social media profile us as being "left" or "right" reinforcing our bubble online. As we become use to being in our bubble with limited challenges as to our opinions, it can become much harder to consider someone else's view.

Inequality is a driver of polarisation though not in the way I expected it to be. As society gets more unequal you would expect those with less would be supportive of redistributive policies. That hasn't necessarily been the case in recent years with poorer people supporting right wing figures and extreme positions as they perceive a greater threat from the elitist left and immigration. Notable examples are of course the United States and United Kingdom. Greater inequality drives polarisation as it disenfranchises people and creates resentment.

Polarisation challenges the functions of politics

Polarisation makes it increasingly difficult to agree on policy as one side thwarts the efforts of the other. Compromise is one of the bedrocks on which a political system is built. Without compromise it is difficult to get anything done as agreement (at least on paper) is required to implement policy. Compromise isn't about being weak and shouldn't be politically costly, it is an important mechanism to allow society to function. The M.A.D (mutually assured destruction) mentality we see over issues like raising the debt ceiling in the United States emphasises the need to cooperate for the greater good rather than political parties.

Scepticism and disenfranchisement are byproducts of polarisation as institutions are seen to represent the interests of a particular group rather than society. It is remarkably hard to have any faith in public entities if we see them as biased. The perceived lack of competence drives further distrust of the political system. Citizens are quite right to see politicians as inept if leaders can't pass laws due to lack of agreement. Sometimes I think politicians forget it is their job to actually run the country rather than represent a party.

There is no short term fix

Polarisation will probably get worse before it gets better. Or should I say, if it gets better. Many factors driving polarisation simply aren't changing - like the party system, marketing algorithms and social media. We can't go back from these advances though I wouldn't mind seeing further limitations put on advertising and data use e.g. limiting direct political advertising through online media.

Simply taking a step back from the party system and asking ourselves what we support regardless of who is saying it is a start. Personalities hold far too much influence in politics. At the end of the day a winning smile isn't going to make the country a better place. Personal changes such as reading news that challenges your thinking or meeting new people outside our circle are logical to consider different viewpoints.

Change must happen at the top with political leaders identifying common ground and not automatically attacking the other side by default. That might sound ridiculous given that is it literally the role of the opposition to attack the party in power - my point is that it shouldn't be. There must be compromise. That doesn't mean to say critique isn't important, just that it shouldn't cripple the country. If National has a good idea it makes sense for New Zealand if Labour supports it, and vice-versa.

Polarisation feeds on itself - if we don't like the way a group thinks that drives us deeper into our own bubble. Breaking this cycle will be critical to supporting future democracy. We need to bring back the art of compromise in negotiation and politics. We all have a role to play in addressing polarisation by keeping an open mind and exploring other perspectives.


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