Institutional design and polarisation. Do consensus democracies fare better in fighting polarisation than majoritarian democracies?

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It is often claimed that we are living in an age of increasing polarization. Political views, opinions, and worldviews become increasingly irreconcilable (idea-based polarization), while at the same time society appears to be getting fractured in antagonistic, opposing camps (identity-based polarization). However, a closer look at international datasets reveals that these forms of polarization do not affect all democracies to the same extent. Levels of identity-based and idea-based polarization strongly vary across countries. The question then becomes what can explain these diverging levels of polarization. In this paper, we hypothesize that the institutional design of a country impacts polarization, and that consensus democracies would display lower levels of polarization. Based on a quantitative analysis of the Comparative Political Dataset and Varieties of Democracy data in 36 countries over time (2000–2019), our results show that institutions did matter to a great extent, and in the hypothesized direction. Countries with consensus institutions, and more in particular PR electoral systems, multiparty coalitions, and federalism did exhibit lower levels of both issue-based and identity-based polarization, thereby confirming our expectations. Moreover, we found that consensus democracies tend to be better at coping with identity-based polarization, while the effect on idea-based polarization is smaller.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)153-172
Number of pages20
Issue number2
Early online date30 Sep 2022
Publication statusPublished - 17 Feb 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Research Foundation–Flanders (FWO Vlaanderen) under [grant numbers G0G7620N and 1113322N]; ERA-NET NORFACE under Grant UNDPOLAR; and EUTOPIA Institutional Partnership under [grant number EUTOPIA-PhD-2021-0000000058]. The authors would like to thank the anonymous reviewers, Jérémy Dodeigne, Anna Kern and the participants of the 2021 “Belgium - The State of the Federation” Conference for their valuable feedback on a previous version of this paper.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.

Copyright 2023 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


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