Polarization on the rise, confidence on the decline

The day after the “presidential elections” in Nicaragua, the “winner” Daniel Ortega mentioned that the other seven presidential aspirants were “sons of bitches of the Yankee imperialists”. As they are in jail for alleged “treason”, Ortega mentioned that they are “no longer Nicaraguans” and that they should be taken to the United States as they “no longer have a homeland”. These words perfectly exemplify the current political polarization in much of the region.

Where does this dynamic originate?

The renowned Italian political scientist, Giovanni Sartori, wrote in his book Parties and Party System: Framework for an Analysis, that political polarization can be understood as the ideological distance between candidates, parties and voters. Polarization is therefore one more aspect of democratic dynamics. Just as at one moment there may be dialogue and consensus, at another moment there will be polarization due to the heterogeneity of political positions.

But today, as some studies point out, polarization is less empirical and has a more political-affective ingredient. This distinguishes polarization today from that of the past and makes it a structural problem of today’s democracies.

Political polarization ceases to be part of democratic plurality when three elements are intertwined. First, when political actors refuse to participate under the rules of the democratic game. Secondly, when plurality becomes aligned towards two tendencies that turn politics into a zone of conflict, and not of dialogue. And finally, when a discourse is institutionalized that reinforces an affective dimension that extends beyond the political, and attributes negative physical and ideological characteristics that become irreconcilable differences between the two tendencies.

Currently, we see this type of polarization, for example, in social networks. These proliferate publications that highlight “negative qualities” of the “other” and encourage divisive reactions in people: either you identify with “us” or with “them”. In this context, the words of the president of Nicaragua meet the characteristics and encourage the current polarization process. Let’s see.

In this fifth term, his rejection of the rules of the game -the first element- is reflected through the imprisonment of his opponents prior to Election Day, not allowing electoral observers and promoting the vote by carriage during Election Day. These are clear indications of a regime that does not favor plurality or allow the presence of adversaries.

By referring to his opponents as “Yankee imperialists”, Ortega reduces social plurality to two tendencies -second element-, on the one hand those who support him and therefore are patriotic and good people and, on the other hand, those who are loyal to foreign interests and bad people. This identity dichotomy demands a choice from his listeners.

Daniel Ortega adds the affective dimension -third element- by mentioning that his opponents are not Nicaraguans and that they no longer have a homeland. That is to say, stripping them of all legitimacy, not only political but moral, since he links their dissidence with a value mark: to be against me is to be against the homeland.

In a regime that has not become an “electoral” dictatorship, this kind of polarization calls into question the work of democracy to provide a climate of debate and reflection. Thus, people prefer to respond to speeches that propose blunt solutions feeding political polarization.

Who can be safe from the inquisitive gaze of those who feel that their homeland belongs to them? The construction of this border is not only a political discourse, it is an affective and emotional discourse that instills distrust in people towards others. This is corroborated by data from the Latinobarómetro 2021. According to the report, Latin America is the most distrustful region on the planet. While in the rest of the world interpersonal trust, on average, is 29% among those surveyed, in our region it is only 9%.

In last year’s Latinobarómetro report, it is noted that “Latin America falls to its lowest point of interpersonal trust since 1996, reaching 12%, which represents a decrease of two percentage points with respect to the 14% it achieved in 2018.”

Currently, and in the context of a triple crisis of an economic, health and political nature, polarization is a catalyst for this sense of distrust towards others. Inequality in the region leads Latin Americans to distrust others, but not because they consider them a threat, but because in the face of precariousness the priority is to “fight” for survival.

Political speeches such as Daniel Ortega’s are not only a flagrant transgression of the values and principles of democracy, they are an incitement to sow distrust in the other, in those who think differently, in those who do not look like me, in those who speak with a different accent, in those who are not “Nicaraguan”, “Mexican”, “Venezuelan”. Polarization built on an affective dimension destroys all interpersonal trust.

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