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  • Writer's pictureDr Roula Nezi

Cultural divides – the role of affective polarisation - Ideas on Europe

Updated: May 9, 2022

Roula, you have worked on “cultural battles”, like climate change skepticism, opposition to homosexual marriage, and anti-vaccine movements? How do you explain that voters of far-right parties tend to adopt such attitudes?

A very quick answer to this question would be to refer to the politicisation of cultural social identities that are increasingly aligned with partisan identities, to a degree that they now divide the new left and far right voters across Europe.

What seems clear is that nowadays symbolic issues and questions of identity occupy a larger and central position compared to ten or fifteen years ago. For example, there is a consensus among researchers that the 2016 EU membership referendum in Great Britain accentuated deep divides in British politics, that cannot easily be bridged. The same can be said about the 2015 “bailout” referendum in Greece or the 2014 independence vote in Scotland.

These are all examples of political events representing a cultural battle at their core. Brexit for example, was all about fears about immigration and national sovereignty, while Grexit was all about anti-EU sentiments and national pride.

Are these cultural battles a new phenomenon?

The answer is “yes” and “no” at the same time. In social sciences this isn’t a new phenomenon – “culture war” is a term first described by James Davison Hunter in 1992, a powerful metaphoric conception, first applied in the United States, of opposing cultural forces on issues ranging from the death penalty to gay rights, to the role of women in society or protection of the environment.

What is also important is that these societal conflicts around cultural issues can create group identities and polarisation that is as intense as that of partisanship. In the U.S. context, the divide between Democrats and Republicans is no longer only a disagreement over views regarding major cultural issues, but also an “identity divide” characterised by increasing inter-group hostility and distrust. In the same way, it has been noted in several other European countries, but mainly in Southern and in Eastern Europe that these cultural divides not only deal with the issues at stake, but reflect “affective polarisation” – a concept used to describe the antipathy between partisans, a divide that is not only political but also deeply emotional.

Why is “affective polarisation” so important? And why is it the object of academic research?

Affective polarisation has important implications for the democratic process.

First of all, it undermines democratic accountability. If perceptions of economic performance or probity in office are influenced by partisan bias, then voters may fail to credit the successes of their opponents, or they might fail to punish mistakes and wrongdoing by their own side.

Secondly, it undermines democratic legitimacy, for high levels of affective polarisation lead partisans to view their opponents as illegitimate even when they have won in free and fair elections, thereby eroding the primacy of the electoral mandate – which is what we observed recently in the United States following Biden’s electoral victory.There are signs of hardening affective polarisation in Europe, and we need to better understand the dynamics of it. In a new project that started only a couple of months ago, together with George Karyotis from the University of Glasgow, we have received funding by the London School of Economics’ Hellenic Observatory to study the development of these culture wars and I will be pleased to come back to “Ideas on Europe” and tell you about the findings of our research.

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