Tõnis Saarts: Year of deepening polarization

Tõnis Saarts.
Tõnis Saarts. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Trying to sum up the political year 2021, the anxiety-inducing trend of deepening polarization cannot be overlooked, whether we are talking about the marriage referendum at the start of the year, anti-vaccination sentiment from this fall or the recent rhetoric against the green turn, Tõnis Saarts found in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

The lines of separation are quite clear for the most part. On the one hand, we have the nationally and conservatively-minded part of the electorate that is highly suspicious of everything that even indirectly speaks of globalization or the European Union. On the other – liberal citizens for whom Estonia's openness, social tolerance and diversity are values to be protected.

New conflict topics from this year fit right in. If one fundamentally does not trust the current government run by the liberal elite and is highly skeptical of big pharma, it is hardly difficult to convince oneself to oppose vaccines.

Similarly, if one opposes the European Union and less than trusts left-wing activists preaching a looming climate disaster, it is not difficult to make oneself believe that the green turn is aimed "against" the interests of the people, even when one loves the natural diversity found in Estonian forests that are threatened by climate change.

Could deepening polarization threaten Estonian democracy? The relationship is a little more complex than it seems at first glance.

Zero polarization is just as dangerous as a high rate of it in society. Specifically, if a society lacks a single political topic to debate and there is universal consensus and agreement, democracy and party politics soon lose meaning. People start to become alienated from politics because nothing important is at stake at elections. In such a situation, someone will eventually start manufacturing artificial conflicts to put the funk back in politics.

Estonia had arrived in a similar situation by around 2015 when the Reform Party wanted to make lowering the social tax rate by half a percentage point the main topic of elections. Let us recall that is just when the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) was coming up and would soon completely redefine the core conflicts of Estonian politics.

However, what happens if there gets to be too much polarization?

Renowned Belgian political philosopher Chantal Mouffe, who also finds conflict instead of searching for a consensus to lie at the heart of democratic politics, defines two kinds of political conflict. First, there is agonistic politics where the opposition is held to be an "adversary." While there are many political differences, the other side is recognized to share certain democratic core values and acknowledged as having the right to exist and express its position.

However, antagonistic politics is a different story altogether. Here, political opponents are treated as "enemies" instead of adversaries. The enemy needs to be silenced and knocked down hard enough to make sure they will not rise again.

It is clear that while moderate agonistic politics is just what should lie at the heart of democracy, its antagonistic counterpart is a threat. Looking at statements from EKRE leaders in recent years, they perceive their opponents not as "adversaries" in a democratic game but as "enemies" whose lives need to be made as difficult as possible should the party return to power.

Let it be said in the interests of the truth that this street goes both ways, with some opponents regarding EKRE as a political organization that should be outright banned.

Professor at Yale Milan Svolik describes a mechanism of how polarization can threaten democracy in one of his papers.

It is not that the supporters of Trump, Orban, Kaczynski et al. favor authoritarianism. Rather, they are democrats. However, once polarization reaches a certain level, a person is left facing a choice of whether to continue supporting their favorite party's line even when its leaders tend to tread on the principles of democracy and free speech, or oppose them, thus helping their adversaries – who have really become "enemies" by now – ascend to power. Most voters prefer loyalty over the protection of democracy in the conditions of stark polarization.

To put this in Estonian context, EKRE supporters would forgive [father and son] Helme for attempts to dial back democratic rights and free speech as they feel that the Reform Party returning to power needs to be prevented at all costs. Whereas Reform supporters could develop the same kind of attitude toward EKRE.

Luckily, polarization has not yet reached a level in Estonia to have initiated the aforementioned mechanism with the potential to undermine democracy. However, there is no guarantee against it should polarization continue to deepen.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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