Polarisation, disintegration cycles and the next European Parliament

Democracy is in crisis. With all the noise, how do we cut to the core of what is happening? And how do we parse out a line of action to tackle such a complex, multicausal problem?
Polarisation, disintegration cycles and the next European Parliament
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Democracy is in crisis. Trust is at historic lows, and declining. Anger and dissatisfaction are increasing. The ancient systems of democracy are struggling to cope in the digital era. With all the noise, how do we cut to the core of what is happening? And how do we parse out a line of action to tackle such a complex, multicausal problem?

The disintegration cycle

There is a core cycle that drives most of our current negative outcomes. These elements are present in 100s of civil wars and 100s of empire downfalls.

  • Popular immiseration driven by growing inequality is deepening;
  • Over time, this turns debates of ideology into debates of identity (today, amplified by algorithms);
  • ‘Rebel’ elites weaponise these polarised, angry, identity-activated cohorts. These efforts often fail. But as the cohorts of the angry and the number of rebel elites grow, eventually the ‘rebel’ elites succeed. They gain power;
  • Gradually freedoms, rights and safeguards are eroded (sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly)
  • The cycle continues with each of the four elements feeding off the others. Eventually, when chance creates a combustible mix (often sparked by an external crisis), violence ensues.

Let’s zoom in on the second item and call it toxic polarisation - when healthy(ish) debates of ideology turn into intractable dogfights of identity. Fundamentally, toxic polarisation is a breakdown in trust. Immiseration creates powerful negative feelings. Insecurity, uncertainty, fear and humiliation all drive anger. These emotions leave large bodies of people susceptible to capture by malign actors. Brexit and Trump are textbook case studies in recent history. There are 100s more further back. 

To bridge this divide that has opened up in many of our own societies, which continues to widen, we need safe spaces between opponents which allow humanisation of ‘the other.’ Building strong procedural rules can create a sense of fairness. And while this is time-consuming we know that these work on a small scale and at the local level on specific issues.

More on the Forum Network: Why Initiatives to Help Strengthen Democracy Are More Important than Ever in the Run-up to 2024 by Chief Executive Officer, Carter Center

On the 16th International Day of Democracy, the Carter Center remains deeply committed to playing its part in this mission and this year’s theme – Empowering the Next Generation.

The reality is that the vast majority (70%+) of both sides share the problem diagnosis on any given issue. Working forward from that shared point, allowing time for personal connection, allows for shared solutions. The Irish abortion process of randomly selected citizen assemblies is an excellent example of how this can work in practice to produce powerful results. Citizens assemblies work on binary issues when the process has binding power [here is a great tool kit on how to run your own assemblies].

The political space is more complex. It operates with a different set of rules and pressures. Citizens assemblies cannot replace Parliaments. So we need to create space for collaboration against the following blocks of inertia (non-exhaustive):

  • Political ideological orientations
  • A toxic media environment (and the algorithms that drive it)
  • Global ‘permacrisis’
  • Malign interference
  • The small number of trusted interlocutors any politician has
  • A culture of conflict

Moreover, de-polarising the political space might also require self-reflection on how Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and foundations contribute to polarisation in the first place. We know fear campaigns work. We know aggressive grassroots mobilisation works. These rarely bridge between worlds. They often demonise and create divides.

It’s easy to see why addressing polarisation is at the same time of critical importance but also seemingly insurmountable.   

Toxic Political Polarisation

We must avoid a ‘USA-type’ outcome. They are considerably more advanced down the disintegration cycle. Part of the problem is that political leaders are strategically choosing ‘wedge issues’ to drive populations apart. This is starting to happen more in Europe and within European Politics.

Political parties are aware and nervous about the increasing polarisation of politics. It’s actually the CSO and foundation community that is behind the curve on this. When the next European Parliament sits they will be primarily impacted by who gets voted in. But there are examples of ‘hard’ wing wins turning out to be much more collaborative, such as Italy. While this does not happen in every instance, there is also a non-formal opportunity to de-polarise that can be explored.

Adding age as a polarisation line for wedge issues might create overexaggerated negative effects in both the short and long term.

The next European Parliament elections are going to be close. Polling shows a handful of seats could hold the balance between scenarios 1 and 2:

  • Scenario 1: collaborative Parliament (positive scenario). An EP much like it is today: dynamic, collaborative, not overly affected by media and wedge issues. This requires a functional coalition of centre-left, centre and a sufficient proportion of the centre-right to reach a majority;
  • Scenario 2: stuck Parliament (negative scenario). A sufficient number of hard right MEPs get elected and they make the choice that they are unwilling to cooperate in a ‘grand coalition’. This blocks normal legislative procedure for 5 years.

Given the tight numbers, the EP could be unstuck if even only a few hard-wing MEPs became collaborative. One viable route to overcome this difficult problem is to work in a way that is inherently politically attractive and supportable. One idea is an intergenerational coalition to mitigate age-based polarisation.

Toxic Political polarisation and the age divide

We know the youth cohort are politically appealing. Not only from a future voter perspective but also from communications optics. We know that older voters turn out more, so are taken more seriously. More of their demands tend to feature in manifestoes. Combining the two creates cut-through.

Adding age as a polarisation line for wedge issues might create overexaggerated negative effects in both the short and long term. Politicians are wary and nervous about this, on all sides.

Within this niche, we can do something about it. We can show that there is more that binds generations than separates them. MEPs can hear that collaboration and compromise are the way forward. MEPs can see a united civil society actively depolarising the debate.

This is but one avenue to explore as we try and reset our political debate. If you are interested in our work around polarisation and intergenerational coalitions at the European level, feel free to reach out to me: joe.elborn@evensfoundation.be


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