How to depolarise deeply divided societies – podcast

The Conversation

From the US to Brazil to India, deepening political polarisation is used as a frame through which to see a lot of 21st-century politics. But what can actually be done to depolarise deeply divided societies, particularly democracies? In this episode of The Conversation Weekly podcast we speak to a political scientist and a philosopher trying to find answers to that question.

When a country is deeply polarised it may feel that there’s no way back. But that’s not what history tells us. Jennifer McCoy, a political scientist at Georgia State University in the US, is studying cases of depolarisation from around the world over the past century to see what lessons they have for today. She’s found that in places that have successfully depolarised, three-quarters “happened under conditions of major systemic interruption”. That could have been an independence struggle, a civil or international war, a foreign intervention, “or it was a regime change mostly from an authoritarian to a democratic type of political government”.

Depolarisation within liberal democracies is rarer, but it does happen – and McCoy points to South Korea and Bolivia as recent examples. Her research has now begun identifying a couple of fundamental conditions that countries which have successfully depolarised, and sustained it, can think about, which she talks to us about in this episode.

Meanwhile, Robert Talisse, a political philosopher at Vanderbilt University in the US, identifies another type of division which is dangerous for democracy that he calls belief polarisation. It’s a cognitive phenomenon in which members of like-minded groups adopt increasingly extreme positions. “They become more dismissive of any countervailing evidence,” he says. “They become less willing to listen to dissenting voices, and importantly, they become more internally conformist.”

Talisse doesn’t believe polarisation can ever be eliminated – only managed. And he has a couple of suggestions for how. “Good democratic citizenship requires that we sometimes do non-political things with others, but it also requires that we sometimes do political things all by ourselves,” he says.

To find out more listen to the full episode of The Conversation Weekly.

This episode was produced by Mend Mariwany and Katie Flood, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. The executive producer was Gemma Ware. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

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Jennifer McCoy is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and receives funding from them for her research.

Robert Talisse does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.