Polarization has caused the social network Twitter to acquire an unbreathable environment, a guy dressed as a bison to storm the US Capitol, groups of students to prevent a speaker from speaking at a university or seriously disrespect a minister in the Spanish hemicycle.
Polarization has other effects too, in the public arena and in the depths of our brains.
A study by the consulting firm Llorente y Cuenca (LLYC) and the citizen platform Más Democracia, which uses big data and artificial intelligence techniques, has verified that polarization in Spain increased by 35% and 40% in the global countries studied. in the last five years.
Public conversation in 12 countries over the last five years was analyzed, encompassing 600 million messages.
The most polarized topics and those that monopolize the greatest volume of conversation in Spain are immigration (the most polarizing), feminism (which leads the volume of conversation, but not polarization), trade unionism, climate change, and abortion.
But the most curious thing is that they have found that the effect of polarizing content on the brain is similar to that of drugs.
We are increasingly “addicted” to polarization: in Spain that “addiction” (or
) has grown by 19% since the pandemic began.
The study is titled
The Hidden Drug.
A study in the addictive power of the polarization of public debate
"Just as drugs are addictive because they activate certain brain receptors, the same occurs with certain polarizing contents," explains the Argentine neuroscientist Mariano Sigman, a contributor to the report and author of the book
The Secret Life of the Mind
The term polarization refers to different processes that are strongly related to each other, but are not the same.
Ideological polarization is what has to do with political ideas.
But affective polarization, now on the rise, has to do with emotions and makes us close ranks not only around our party or our leader, but around other voters or followers, generating a feeling of belonging to ours, but also rejection and even hatred towards opponents.
“This type of polarization, unlike the one with a more ideological content, generates a confrontation in the world between them and us.
A way of understanding reality is generated in which mine are the good ones and the others are the bad ones”, explains Mariano Torcal,
From voters to hooligans.
Political polarization in Spain
(Waterfall), which will be published next February.
Affective polarization is the one that muddies collective life the most.
"In consultations we noticed an increase in sensitivity towards these issues, especially in people with a tendency to cognitive rigidity, who have rigid thinking and face a context of uncertainty," explains clinical psychologist Patricia Fernández, collaborator of the study. from LLYC.
After the chain of crises with pandemics and wars, many people seek answers in black and white thinking caused by feelings of fear and insecurity.
"This is how they identify with extreme thinking, they need to be part of the group to think less," says the psychologist.
In these states of polarization, it doesn't matter that they offer us reasons or data.
If changing your mind in a discussion is very rare, now moderating your position or showing a trace of empathy is also becoming a rarity.
“We are so locked into our political identities that there is virtually no candidate, information, or situation that can lead us to change our minds.
We are capable of justifying almost anything or anyone as long as they are on our side, and the result is a politics devoid of protective barriers, norms, persuasion or accountability,” writes journalist Ezra Klein in
Why We Are Polarized
The LLYC report highlights some moments in the public life of the different countries with special polarizing power (or vice versa).
For example, in the United States, the revocation of the constitutional protection of abortion generated great polarization, unlike, curiously, the murder of the black citizen George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, which notably increased the volume of conversation, but which it also favored consensus.
Brazil is the most polarized country according to the report, where issues such as abortion, racism or freedom of expression stand out.
In Mexico, ideological polarization is the lowest compared to the other countries analyzed and feminism is not especially controversial compared to human rights or freedom of expression.
The most polarizing issue globally is abortion.
The logic of polarization
Social entrenchment occurs in a loop that simulates addiction: “The logic of polarization is as follows: to appeal to a more polarized public, institutions and political actors behave in a more polarized manner.
As the institutions and actors become more polarized, they polarize the public more”, and so on, according to Klein.
It is a tactic from which parties such as the far-right Vox, which has degraded the ways of doing politics in the Congress of Deputies and outside of it, make a profit.
Recently, Víctor Sánchez del Real, a deputy from that party, offered his chest and neck from the rostrum to his political opponents.
“This is not for the lukewarm,” declared another Vox deputy, Onofre Miralles.
In the study
American Affective Polarization in Comparative Perspective
(Cambridge University Press), by Gidron, Adams and Horne, Spain appears highlighted as the most polarized country (although this is not the case in others, such as the one carried out by LLYC).
The United States does not usually appear as the most polarized country, but as the one in which the phenomenon has spread the fastest in recent years (especially during the Obama and Trump presidencies), according to Klein, based on two parties, the Democrat and the Republican, which were diverse political platforms and with different currents and sensibilities, and have become homogeneous and confronting organizations, both in their political elites and in their social bases and even in everyday life (styles of life, vehicle, way of dressing, coffee).
In fact, 43% of US citizens see a civil war as possible in the next decade, according to a survey by YouGov and The Economist.
In Spain, polarization increased with the so-called end of bipartisanship and the appearance of political options such as Podemos and Vox,
“But the consequences are not the same.
Vox is accompanied by anti-liberal and intolerant attitudes, and Podemos was not born to question democracy, but to deepen it, as seen by those identified”, as Professor Mariano Torcal recalls.
In Spain now the polarization, more than around parties, occurs around ideological blocks, left and right, that encompass different parties.
In sectors of the left, for example, in some waves of cancellations (on networks) those who think differently can be seen.
“Ultimately, political polarization is only the most recent form adopted by social conflict and its translation into political competition”, writes Luis Miller, a CSIC researcher, in the prologue to Klein's book.
“Social networks”, explains Mariano Sigman, “are the ideal territory for polarizing content, because they interact well with the addictive: there is speed, a rapid concatenation between causes and consequences, the reward cycle is exacerbated”.
With networks, says the neuroscientist, we are carrying out a human experiment on an unprecedented scale: "We still do not know all the consequences."
One of the ones we already know about is this polarization, as is evident when taking a look at Twitter, but not only the networks collaborate in the phenomenon.
“It is wrong to understand polarization as a product solely associated with trends in digital communication,” writes sociologist Silvio Waisbord of George Washington University.
The pull of populism is also fundamental or, in countries like Spain, the fragmentation of the parliamentary arch and the erosion of moderate options that used to be the majority, as well as the role of the media, beyond Twitter, or the degradation of educational levels.
In addition, "polarization as a political and media strategy pays off," says Waisbord, which is why it is not uncommon for parties, media or individuals to promote it: it brings votes, publicity,
Polarization, as the LLYC study says, hooks.
And that makes it increasingly difficult to reach parliamentary agreements and the parties are increasingly entrenched in smaller and smaller ideological redoubts.
In other words, it is increasingly difficult to do politics.
All in all, the ultimate source of polarization is, according to the experts consulted in this report, inequality —which has grown since the beginning of the neoliberal globalization model and is driven by different crises— and the subsequent social unrest it generates.
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