Back From political polarization to affective polarization. How did we get to the current situation?
From political polarization to affective polarization. How did we get to the current situation?
Mariano Torcal and Josep Maria Comellas, researchers at the UPF Research and Expertise Centre for Survey Methodology (RECSM), are the authors of an introductory article for a special issue of the journal South European Society and Politics, in which they perform in-depth analysis of the affective polarization existing in Spain and southern Europe from a comparative perspective.
Mariano Torcal, a full professor of Political Science at UPF, and Josep Maria Comellas, a PhD in Political Science from UPF, both researchers at the University’s Research and Expertise Centre for Survey Methodology (RECSM), are co-authors of an introductory article for a special issue on affective polarization in Spain and in southern Europe, which takes advantage of a large number of indicators from the E-DEM panel survey, directed by Mariano Torcal himself.
The paper, published recently in the journal South European Society and Politics, is complemented by a further seven articles, some of them signed by researchers at the UPF Department of Political and Social Sciences, which offer in-depth discussion and analysis on various aspects related to affective polarization and how it has become entrenched in our society.
The phenomenon of “political polarization” in Spain has recently gained important presence in public debate. During recent years, experts, journalists and public opinion makers have repeatedly stated that the climate of polarization has also increased markedly among the public.
“Although there are discrepancies regarding its intensity and causes, the debate has centred around the growing ‘polarizing/polarizer tone’ of many of the slogans of political representatives and their impact due to the waves they generate in social networks”, Mariano Torcal asserts.
"All of this has brought about a feeling that politics in Spain is driven by affection towards ‘my own’ and hatreds towards ‘others’ rather than public debate characterized by the critical exchange of opinions and reasoned disagreements about concrete events and public policies"
For the UPF full professor of Political Science and RECSM director, “this perception has been worsened by the support granted to more radical and extremist parties that use discourse and degree of confrontation as a constant communication strategy. All of this has brought about a feeling that politics in Spain is driven by affection towards ‘my own’ and hatreds towards ‘others’ rather than public debate characterized by the critical exchange of opinions and reasoned disagreements about concrete events and public policies. This is what has been called ‘affective polarization’, and it constitutes the focus of the work presented in this special issue”.
Affective polarization from a comparative perspective and relationship with ideological polarization
After discussing the concept and its operationalization in multiparty environments, in the introductory article of the special issue the authors provide an enormous amount of data on affective polarization in Spain and southern Europe from a comparative perspective using the Comparative National Elections Project (CNEP) and the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES). They also provide longitudinal data, which enables appreciating how this subject has evolved in recent years.
But, the authors do not limit themselves to this alone, as they address two very important issues. First, the relationship between affective and ideological polarization, the latter being understood as the growing discrepancy among Spaniards on the major issues and policies subject to debate in the public sphere. Regarding this matter, the authors show clearly that these ideological discrepancies are not the source of affective polarization, and that the latter responds rather to the perception of the discrepancies of political leaders (or of partisan offer).
The second major issue addressed by the authors is the different dimensions that can shape or lie behind partisan affective polarization (around the parties). Thus, they seek to show that partisan affective polarization is linked to a redefinition of conflicts with respect to other identities present in the political and social sphere, such as the regionalist/nationalist identity conflict.
A further seven articles discussing affective polarization
Finally, this special issue of South European Society and Politics introduces a further seven articles signed by a group of renowned academics linked to various institutions in Spain, who work with the same data and who establish a theoretical and empirical dialogue with the problems raised in the introductory article.
These articles deal with such important aspects as the effect of affective polarization on electoral participation and electoral preferences; the relationship of polarization with the identities that gravitate around territorial conflict and with the emergence of more radical parties; the degree of relationship between exposure to more radical media or Twitter accounts with more polarizing content and affective polarization; and, finally, the effect of such polarization on the degree of confidence in political institutions of representation.
Among the authors of the articles is Mariano Torcal, together with researchers associated with the UPF Department of Political and Social Sciences (Toni Rodon, Danilo Serani) and other institutions and universities, such as the CSIC, Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M), the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), and the University of Salamanca.
The effect of affective polarization on confidence in political institutions in Spain
One such article, written by Mariano Torcal and professor Emily Carty, of the University of Salamanca, seeks to show how the so-called “pernicious effect of affective polarization” is reflected in a decline in the already poor levels of confidence of Spaniards in their representative bodies.
According to the authors, the affective polarization driven by the elites is accompanied by two aspects that explain this deterioration. First, it may be due to confrontational strategies promoted by most elites that block the processes of dialogue required in an already highly fragmented, multi-party system: the result is a feeling that these institutions are characterized by their inaction or inefficiency.
Secondly, the discourses that promote polarization are accompanied by illiberal discourses against the basic institutions of our political system, which are characterized by their inefficiency, promoting division, the unnecessary overlapping of functions and expenses, and defending the interests of those who find themselves there instead of the interests of the citizens.
The role of the media and social networks in affective polarization
How is all this process, which has led affective polarization to permeate Spanish politics, linked to the media and social networks? According to Mariano Torcal, “Politics in Spain has been characterized in recent years by the presence of constant outbursts, insults or disparagement uttered by some political leader or commentator in some media or on social networks. This has tended to be accompanied by the recurring use by politicians or opinion makers with the goal of disqualifying the alleged political opponent, of labels such as ‘Bolivarians’, ‘communists’, ‘fascists’, ‘reds’, ‘separatists’, ‘Spaniards’ or/and ‘terrorists’, among many others”. And he adds: “This phenomenon is becoming generalized in the vast majority of the media, who with a marked sensationalist tone (you need only take a look at morning television conversations that are widespread on all channels), insist on engaging in the sale of their ‘(dis)informative product’”.
The UPF full professor of Political Science concludes that “all of this contributes to the perception of a general atmosphere of crisis and confrontation in the public sphere where a large majority of informers and citizens do not behave as such, but rather like ‘hooligans’. You do not have to consult the polarized social networks (which, by definition, are characterized by their vast polarization) to appreciate it, and, in any case, these media already undertake to let us know what is happening, contributing to create a prism that makes us perceive a state of ‘generalized polarization and confrontation’”.
However, as Mariano Torcal tries to demonstrate in his work with Javier Lorenzo, published in this same issue, social networks simply limit themselves to bringing together those who are already polarized as a result of their identification with a certain party. In this sense, they do not polarize citizens, rather they allow them to express their degree of polarization resulting in an oversized perception of the degree of polarization that actually exists in society.
Works published in this special issue:
Mariano Torcal, Josep Maria Comellas (2022). “Affective Polarisation in Times of Political Instability and Conflict. Spain from a Comparative Perspective”. South European Society and Politics
Isabel Rodríguez, Diego Santamaría & Luis Miller (2022) “Electoral Competition and Partisan Affective Polarisation in Spain”, South European Society and Politics
Danilo Serani (2022) “In-Party Like, Out-Party Dislike and Propensity to Vote in Spain”, South European Society and Politics
Amuitz Garmendia Madariaga & Pedro Riera (2022) “Territorial Polarisation after Radical Parties’ Breakthrough in Spain”, South European Society and Politics,
Toni Rodon (2022) “Affective and Territorial Polarisation: The Impact on Vote Choice in Spain”, South European Society and Politics
Albert Padró-Solanet & Joan Balcells (2022) “Media Diet and Polarisation: Evidence from Spain”, South European Society and Politics
Javier Lorenzo-Rodríguez & Mariano Torcal (2022) “Twitter and Affective Polarisation: Following Political Leaders in Spain”, South European Society and Politics
Mariano Torcal & Emily Carty (2022) “Partisan Sentiments and Political Trust: A Longitudinal Study of Spain”, South European Society and Politics