Is the optimism about polarization in Europe justified?

Many people worry about the growing polarization of society. Between left and right, between “awakened” activists and conservatives, between city dwellers and rural people, or cosmopolitans and nativists. Some fear that the divisions will continue to widen.

But is it really that bad? Three recent academic studies suggest that all is not yet lost. Even better, they see plenty of reason to be optimistic.

The first study focuses on popular belief in conspiracy theories in Switzerland. It was published in July by the Institute for Delinquency and Crime of the Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften in Zurich.

During the pandemic, conspiracy theories could be heard and read across Europe. The virus is believed to have originated in a lab, been caused by 5G networks, or was a treacherous plot by Bill Gates to forcibly vaccinate everyone. Some feared that we were going straight back to the Middle Ages.

The Zurich researchers found no such thing. In 2018, they discovered that 36% of all Swiss people believed in conspiracy theories. But by 2021, that number had fallen to 28%. This year, it remains at this level. Although 28% is still a lot, the common assumption that citizens are increasingly seduced by conspiracy theories does not appear to be true.

According to the researchers, proponents of conspiracy theories have suddenly become visible during the pandemic – much more so than before. Across Europe, they protested loudly against vaccines, mandatory masks and other Covid measures. But precisely because they were loud and radical, other citizens distanced themselves from them.

Dirk Baier, director of the Zurich Institute, expects the remaining adherents to become even more radical and extreme – and as a result, he believes that general acceptance of these theories will continue to decline. Swiss citizens who believe in conspiracy theories “are already a bit older and insecure, and have a rather pessimistic view of the world”, he told Swiss television. An endangered breed, therefore.

Derivative polarization

These results are consistent with German and American studies that have identified two groups: first, Europeans and Canadians who, living in a political system based on consensus and compromise and reading mainstream media, are less likely to believe theories of the plot. And secondly those who live in the United States, the Philippines or Hong Kong, countries where compromise and consensus are less central in politics and where the media is deeply polarized. Interestingly, the only Western country in this group is the United States.

Earlier this year, Steffen Mau, a sociologist at Humboldt University in Berlin, came to a similar conclusion in an essay for the journal Merkur. “European society is much less polarized than is often thought,” he recently explained.

Unlike sociologists like Andreas Reckwitz, who see a growing divide between “anywhere” and “somewhere” and between urban and rural dwellers, Mau says these differences between opposing groups cannot be empirically substantiated. After many years of studying citizens’ attitudes and opinions, he finds it increasingly difficult to “label” people. Most people turn out to be hybrids, belonging to several different groups simultaneously: they are both trans and right-wing; they are vegans and drive polluting SUVs.

In fact, says Mau, the main trend he sees is that citizens are becoming more and more liberal in their views. Even when it comes to “controversial topics” like migration and gender issues, opinions change quickly.

Left-wing cosmopolitans, for example, rarely oppose border controls. Among right-wingers, there are very few climate change deniers left. And whereas twenty years ago many did not accept homosexuals and transgender people, most do now.

The questions that Western societies are currently debating, sometimes fiercely, are now mostly derivative questions: not climate change as such, but “who pays for it?” Not “Should we accept transgender people?” but “Should we set aside two hours a week in public swimming pools just for them?” Some argue we should, others say transgender people should get the same treatment as everyone else. “So there’s a conflict,” Mau says, “but it’s not about equal treatment anymore. A lot of people agree on that now. It’s more follow-up discussions.” In his view, the major divisive battles over these issues are almost over.

Cosmopolitans are everywhere

The third study tempering fears of polarization in Europe is by Dirk Konietzka and Yevgeniy Martynovych, from the University of Braunschweig in Germany. They focused on the divide between urban and rural – the new educated and liberal middle class versus the supposedly more backward and less educated rural dwellers. Their conclusion is that this gap is not widening at all. In the Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie they recently wrote that the new cosmopolitan middle class is actually growing everywhere – both in cities and in the countryside.

This growth certainly creates a gap with disadvantaged citizens in terms of education and opportunities. But, unlike before, this is not a divide between urban and rural areas but rather a divide between both towns and countryside. According to the two researchers from Braunschweig, there are more and more cosmopolitans everywhere, including in provincial towns and villages.

How is it then that the idea is still so widespread that societies are increasingly polarized?

This may be related to the fact that European societies are changing rapidly. Whenever this happens, “political entrepreneurs” tend to emerge, seizing the opportunity to capitalize on it. They try to form small but powerful new communities by concocting political drama with great emotion and maximum demands, often financial.

An example of this is the angry Dutch farmers who oppose new laws limiting nitrogen emissions this summer. They dump cow dung on busy highways and organize intimidating “visits” by tractor to the homes of ministers. Another example is a small group of German climate activists who glue themselves to the sidewalk or paintings in art galleries. The news media love to report on this kind of unrest and extremism, reinforcing a powerful image of deep fractures in society.

It’s just a part of life

So perhaps we are witnessing today in Europe a political polarization which is inevitable – and has always been inevitable – in rapidly changing societies.

Healthy and functioning democracies should be able to deal with it. The studies cited above suggest that this is exactly what is happening: democracies are dealing with it, each in their own way. Facing multiple transitions, they try to solve problems and bridge gaps.

That’s what democracies are for: making sure that different groups in society don’t tear each other apart. In a way, it’s as if nothing had happened. These processes can sometimes be painful and frightening, but Europeans should not despair: their record so far is quite good.


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