Populism and the accentuation of political polarization

By Guillermo Mejía

Populism has taken root in the way of doing politics, with the accentuation of the polarization of antagonistic forces that take advantage of the resources directed to exploit the irrational part of human beings, to the detriment of social dialogue and debate on the problems that afflict societies.

To enrich the theme it is valuable to bring into account the ideas of the Argentine master Silvio Waisbord, de la George Washington University, author of the essay "Is it valid to attribute political polarization to digital communication? About bubbles, platforms and affective polarization ", published in the Journal of the Argentine Society of Political Analysis.

"Populism has been a leading trend in world politics in recent decades just when polarization became an important mark of politics.", warns the professor, "There is no region of the world that has been immune to the populist insurgency. Populism became one of the clearest challenges for democracy as it is a massive political phenomenon (…)”

According to the author, populism is a political movement "on the brink of liberalism", since it questions essential principles of liberal democracy, for example, division of powers, critique mechanism, accountability and transparency, freedom of expression and participation. Although it clarifies that there are "soft" and "intense" populisms.

In addition to attacking defined elites, “It is embodied in charismatic and demagogic leaderships determined to weaken any form of control that can hinder executive action. It understands the state in a caudillista way where patronage and nepotism is common compared to the interests of bureaucratic and technical personnel and the position of the experts ", need.

Based on these principles and vision of the policy, populism is prone to polarization. This is due not only to their continuous vision of the 'other' as an enemy., but to understand politics in strictly defined terms, no grays or possible agreements. This results in the constant rhetorical fostering of divisions and the defenestration of the opposition ”, add.

Polarization removes incentives for negotiation and compromise -as he warns-, and it places populism where it can only achieve its objectives by enjoying absolute parliamentary support or by contravening established rules and constitutional principles..

Why negotiate with someone who is demonized?, he wonders. "This situation easily turns into the absence of consensus, political paralysis, the exacerbation of prejudices and hatreds, and the strengthening of extreme attitudes ", The also researcher and columnist on communication issues responds.

Populism and communication

The populist vision is maintained within communication through two important aspects of political communication, according to the Argentine professor, like-minded and loyal media, and the Manichean narratives.

Waisbord makes the following statements:

One: Contemporary populism emerged and was consolidated in the fragmented informational ecology of modern and digital media. On one side, populism requires a media system loyal to its political vision, that tirelessly deepens divisions, sing praises to the infinite talent of the Adored Leader, and satanize the evil enemy. Ideologically related media are purely instrumental insofar as they are understood as essential to prop up affirmed identities around affective polarization and the delegitimization of the Other. Needs to colonize both traditional and digital media. Need a necklace of hardcore means, supporters, ideological, overtly biased, hammering the same messages in sync with official intentions. It does not require absolute repression or the extinction of adverse means, for more than in some cases, as in Eastern Europe, Philippines, and Latin America, populism in government has had that objective, once his attempt to conquer his adversaries through legal recourse failed, the purchase, and the pressure. It also relies on social media dynamics both for the dissemination of official and personalist messages and for the aggregation of supporters in open or closed groups..

From: Populist experiences suggest that polarization is essentially a process "from above" by elites who take advantage of situations of political crisis, paralysis and discontent to identify differentiable axes and deepen divisions. In this sense, members of the political elite or politicians emerged from outside politics skillfully use communicational structures for their polarizing message. They are the ones who insist with keys of divisions through rhetoric against power groups, with the aim of sowing and / or reaping hatred and discontent against politics and its institutions. When political elites are divided on fundamental issues, there are possibilities for members or skilled outsiders, with economic capital, political and / or media, activate polarization. Polarization within elites causes public polarization, or in certain segments through media exposure and public speeches. Political elites, including insurgent candidates, they are key influencers who direct and drive polarization while enjoying wide media coverage or direct access (on social media) to millions of followers. They are the ones who skillfully insert dividing themes that anchor political identities. These themes vary mainly according to whether populism acquires a left or right character.. For the contemporary right, polarizing issues are essential in the "culture war" - white identity, immigration, minorities, nationalism, globalism. To the left, are the thematic wedges like oligarchy, international powers, neoliberalism, nationalism. It is not the media alone who "polarize", but the elites channeled by media coverage, whether they are ideologically related media or “mass” media that convey their messages. Political leaders set themes and interpretive frameworks destined to polarize. They use the fusion of analog and digital media to cultivate the cult of personality.

It should be noted that –according to Waisbord-, populist polarization works according to the friend / foe logic that consists of stirring up the permanent confrontation with certain social actors seen as "the Other to be defeated". The enemies, among them the media, are those who oppose the popular will transmuted into the leader, who embodies the people.

“They take advantage of and enhance hostile perceptions against certain media in the electorate, media that generally have critical positions vis-à-vis their candidacies or governments. They launch various accusations in front of these media and use labels such as the "lying press" and the "foreign press" to disqualify their coverage ", sentence the author.

At the by, points out that disinformation is a central part of the polarizing strategy of populism, legacy of political propaganda, and that in populism "it is intertwined with other elements mentioned - the constant deepening of divisions, the rhetorical rejection of any negotiation or compromise, and the constant hammering of conspiracy theories ".

And add: “There is an instrumental perspective of the media linked to the production of its own truths - meanings that justify beliefs and therefore reject any alternative version. The obsession to reinforce narratives of legitimacy discards inconvenient data and is based on knowledge and facts tailored to the official interests and convictions existing among its followers ".

But clarify: “It would be wrong to omit the fact that, just as populism polarizes due to its own vision of politics, the opposition against populism tends to generate similar dynamics in its frontal "resistance". The conception of politics as friend / enemy is not exclusive to populism, rather, it is adopted by its adversaries who insist on maintaining a single political-media dividing axis in their furious opposition and resistance ".

Among other conclusions, Waisbord says polarization discourages balanced journalism, large, comprehensive, that covers topics and offers perspectives outside of the iron bipartisan logic or ideological Manichaeism, thus, limited diversity is promoted and spaces for the expression of diversity are weakened. And disinformation is reinforced as it exposes audiences to visions filtered by narrow interests. Unlike, a dialogic and pluralistic vision of communication, that serves to cushion the onslaught of polarization, faces notable historical and contemporary structural difficulties.

The Argentine professor explains that the reasons are several: the political economy of the media, the inexorable weakness of journalism as a common and dominant gatekeeper, the proliferation of informational options, and the disruption of fractional media ecology in multiple digital spheres.

For Waisbord, it only remains to analyze alternative options, from a perspective that understands media-communicational polarization as a problem for democracy, while undermining the basis for negotiation and recognition of the multiple differences in public life.

How good it would be for Salvadoran society to open a serious and profitable discussion about it..

Guillermo Mejia.