Political Extremism and Polarization: More (Worrisome) Lessons from Latin America

     U.S. politics is becoming increasingly polarized, characterized by growing rigidity, extremism and, at times, incidents of violence on the part of pro-Trump and anti-Trump demonstrators. What many find most puzzling about the current U.S. administration is how President Trump can continually make what is regarded as outrageous statements without those statements having a substantial detrimental impact on his core base of support. True, his 37% approval rating is one of the lowest so early in a presidential first term. However, even this level of support is difficult to fathom. At the same time, many Democratic supporters have been unwilling to grant the new government even minimal legitimacy, apparently convinced that Trump’s road to the White House was paved with Russian complicity.  Europe is now more politically polarized than ever before with the rise in popularity of populist right fringe parties, the result, according to reports, of a general ideological shift. 

Political Extremism and Polarization in the United States

     In a recent study, the Pew Research Center found Democratic and Republican Americans to be deeply divided ideologically. These divisions, on issues of social protection, environmental regulation, and immigration, are now more profound than they were two decades ago. Indeed, the antipathy towards opposition political viewpoints is illustrated by the fact that a substantial proportion of the American public believe that their opponents’ viewpoints “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” While the numbers of Americans at the extremes of the political spectrum have increased, the numbers at the center have shrunk. There has also been a marked rise in the degree of contempt of partisan supporters for the other party and a growing resistance to compromises that would allow both sides to make equal gains. Moreover, those holding opposing political views have become increasingly insulated from one another.  

     Trump supporters, according to most reports, are found disproportionately (though certainly not entirely) among males, whites, particularly those who live in the “rust belt,” among the less well educated, and among evangelical Christians. However, the majority of those with some college education voted for Trump, as did a startling four out of every ten voters with post graduate degrees. This fact alone challenges the interpretation that ignorance of public issues can by itself explain public support for Trump. If not ignorance, then what accounts for the extremist views and the deepening political divide in the United States? 

     The explanation of political extremism, according to psychological attempts to explain it, is emotion. Feelings of threat, extreme vulnerability, and lack of control, encourage even otherwise tolerant individuals to move toward an increasingly rigid position. Apparently, when people perceive higher threat levels and are under stress, they have a tendency to support leaders who promise a more authoritarian approach involving tighter rules and a crackdown on deviant behaviour. Hence, according to one insightful observer, it was this sense of threat and feelings of lack of control (acquired through job losses and an increasing immigrant population) that motivated American voters to vote for Trump. It is those same feelings of loss of control and vulnerability that motivate his opponents now that Trump is in power. 

Insights from Latin America on the Roots of the Problem

     Neither extremism and nor political polarization are new even though they are novel features of the U.S. and European political landscapes. Political polarization and extremism was most prevalent in Latin America from the 1940s into the 1980s, when left mobilization, often of the populist variety, followed by violent guerilla insurgency, arose and expanded in the region. Both of these phenomena were closely linked to the rigidity of political systems. Many countries had highly imperfect electoral democracies in which the access of left parties to political power was restricted. A variety of mechanisms accomplished this task, running the gamut from informal/formal elite pacts, to electoral fraud, to legislative restrictions.  The rigidity and exclusionary nature of political systems, and their consequent inability to channel and process popular demands, were instrumental in fostering left extremism. Sluggish or stagnant economic growth combined with government neglect of popular demands fueled popular pressure from below. Opposition to power concentration in the hands of selfish “oligarchies” became the rallying cry of radical oppositional political movements. Marxist left and left populist movements called, in some cases, for the eradication of existing political and economic orders. These parties and movements reflected increasingly intense popular sentiments of political exclusion (lack of control) and vulnerability. 

Ad for a film on political tensions between left and right in Chile, early 1970s

Ad for a film on political tensions between left and right in Chile, early 1970s

     This mobilization from below gave rise to fear and alarm on the part of conservative economic, political and military elites, backed by middle class and sometimes lower class socio-economic groups. While most Latin Americans did not actively mobilize behind these conservative interests (in the way Trump supporters have), there was nevertheless strong national security concerns among an important segment of the public, backed most assuredly by U.S. interests. This public support was sufficiently salient to allow the military to take power and institute large-scale political repression for a significant period of time. The severe nature of political polarization and extremism in Latin America was unusual in its intensity and consequences. The same principles, however—insulation, fear, and feelings of lack of control—were operational. In Chile, for example, left and right wing political party supporters, drawn largely from distinct social groups, were insulated from one another, lacking the sort of social interaction that might have mitigated the growing fear and suspicion that increasingly divided that society. By the early 1970s, the Chilean political center had disintegrated and the ability of the political system to achieve any sort of compromise on the main political issues broke down. The political left and its working class and peasant supporters feared that their dream of an equitable and fair society would be blocked by their political opponents. The political right, having lost political control by 1970, felt that its very way of life would disappear. Rhetoric on both sides became increasingly confrontational and uncompromising. 

     The Latin American experience is instructive in another respect. It points to how very difficult it is to mitigate extremism and political polarization once it has taken hold. Extremism (and its consequence of political polarization) feeds on itself because it is driven by emotion—feelings of fear, vulnerability, and loss of control. It cannot be addressed by appeals to reason alone. The political struggle in this context becomes zero sum, an occurrence that exacerbates the degree of political polarization because the side that holds power is unlikely to make any concessions to its political opponent. This process fuels extremism. Another lesson of Latin America is that the wounds wrought by political extremism are profound and long lasting. It took decades to reintegrate shattered political systems and rebuild minimal levels of political consensus in the region. Tackling political extremism requires leadership empathetic to both sides, one willing to grant legitimacy to distinct sets of social and political concerns concerns. Unhappily, this type of leadership appears to be in desperate short supply in those parts of the world that need it most right now.