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Within contemporary debates on the global crisis of democracy, the comparative study of political polarization has turned into a flourishing industry. It has been built on uncertain conceptual foundations, though. With multiple, incongruent meanings competing against each other, the concept lacks a distinctive core. Based on a broad reading of the comparative literature and an analysis of selected influential articles, this paper seeks to remedy the prevalent semantic fragmentation. It reconstructs the meaning of political polarization by developing four propositions. First, contemporary processes of polarization lack what once was considered their defining feature: the presence of self-declared antidemocratic actors. Second, though political polarization is best understood as a type of political conflict, broad strands of polarization research do not study conflict but clusters of individual properties. Third, extant studies of polarization are highly selective in the analytical attention they pay to the building blocks of polarizing conflicts: their protagonists, intensities, subjective attitudes, public expressions, and substantive sources. Fourth, spellbound by the binary distinction between ideological and affective polarization, the literature has tended to obscure a crucial third dimension: mutual fears of democratic subversion.
The paper is available at request from the author.
Andreas Schedler is a Senior Research Fellow at the CEU Democracy Institute. He is the Lead Researcher of the De- and Re-Democratization Workgroup and a Visiting Professor at CEU Vienna. He earned his PhD from the University of Vienna. Before joining the CEU, he was a professor of political science at the Center for Economic Teaching and Research (cide) in Mexico City. A leading comparative scholar of democracy, democratization, and authoritarianism, he has conducted research on democratic consolidation and transition, authoritarian elections, anti-political-establishment parties, political accountability, and organized violence. He is also known for his methodological work on concept analysis and cross-national measurement. His current research focuses on political polarization and the destruction of basic democratic trust.
Andras Bozoki is Professor at the CEU Department of Political Science and Research Affiliate at the CEU Democracy Institute. His main fields of research include democratization, de-democratization, political regimes, ideologies, Central European politics, and the role of intellectuals. In 1989, he participated at the national roundtable negotiations. He was President of the Hungarian Political Science Association (2003-05), then in 2005-06, he served as Minister of Culture of Hungary. He also served as the chairman of the Political Science Committee at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (2011-17). He was visiting professor at various universities around the world, including Columbia University, Nottingham University, Tübingen University and Bologna University, and he also taught at his native Eötvös Loránd University. He is the (co-)author of almost 20 books, and his articles were published in seven languages.
Zsolt Enyedi is Research Affiliate at the DI's De- and Re-Democratization, Professor at the CEU Political Science Department and Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford. The focus of his research interests is on party politics, comparative government, church and state relations, and political psychology. His articles appeared in journals such as Political Psychology, European Journal of Political Research, Political Studies, West European Politics, Party Politics, Political Studies, Europe-Asia Studies, Problems of Post-Communism, Journal of Ideologies or European Review. He was the 2003 recipient of the Rudolf Wildenmann Prize and the 2004 winner of the Bibó Award. He was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center (Washington D.C.), Kellogg Institute (Notre Dame University), the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies (Wassenaar), the European University Institute (Florence) and Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins University.