Fear the Worst

Israel is yet another present-day case of the “balance of power” or distribution of power leading to polarization in a society, whereby a small far-right group in what is otherwise a culturally and ideologically diverse society has now become the ‘kingmakers’ in the Israeli parliament and in turn has been able to secure consequential and important positions for themselves in the Prime Minister’s cabinet. Why polarization matters over the long run is not because it exacerbates partisanship and creates fissures in society, but rather, polarization matters because of the harm it does “to the quality of political discourse and public policy” and to the basic stability of the system of governance. 

As mentioned before, there is no clear and determinable factor which can fully explain a political and social phenomenon like polarization. As a result, polarization suffices as a justification to “fear the worst” due to its complexity and uncertainty. Not only has polarization led to the ‘gridlock’ or ‘deadlock’ we are witnessing today in certain places, but polarization can even go further than mere gridlock and deadlock and in turn endanger the basic public institutions we take for granted, such as the Congress, the bureaucracy, and even media houses. In sum, polarization amounts to conflict, and in turn, conflict has no “quick fix” or formula or resolution. 

Polarization also undermines democratic accountability, and when there is little to no democratic accountability of the system, the ultimate result is that “the system will not function.” Ultimately, democratic systems are “necessarily pluralistic collections of diverse interests, opinions, and values that have to be reconciled peacefully.” It follows that a dysfunctional system is actually a sign of something deeper, namely, the failure of the basic culture and national identity which underpins the system and is supposed to keep the system functional, as Fukuyama noted. 

Thus, the fostering of a basic, common, and shared culture and a basic, common, and shared national identity which can serve as the foundation for a functional democratic system where compromise and tolerance are the basic norms and values of the system is the real and true challenge, and the challenge becomes ever more overwhelming and difficult to overcome in a state of polarization. Perhaps the solution is to render the system to be more inclusive of different groups and different identities. But what an inclusive system which accounts for all groups and identities does is that it renders the notion of a “nation-state” based on a single cultural, ethnic, or racial identity as obsolete. 

As a result, we have reverted yet again to the issue of identity, and the issue of what it is that exactly defines and determines a person’s identity. And as mentioned before, identity demands the conferring of acknowledgement, dignity, and recognition to others above all else. Arguably, those who are spurring the polarization in certain societies are demanding acknowledgement, dignity, and recognition from others above all else. And as Michael Lind wrote: “The exclusion of the views of large numbers of voters from any representation in public policy or debate has created openings in politics that demagogic populists have sought to fill.” Hence, the exclusion of many individuals and groups from public discourse and the public sphere and the refusal to acknowledge the pluralistic nature of our universe has led to scenarios such as the ones in which we find ourselves in places like Afghanistan, Israel, and now even in the United States.

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