Moral Polarization and the International Order

Balkan Devlen, University of Copenhagen

The following is a lightly edited transcript of Dr. Devlen’s talk on November 18, 2019 at the “The Rise and Fall of Liberal International Order” workshop co-hosted by NATO Association of Canada and Defence and Security Foresight Group that took place at the Royal Canadian Military Institute, Toronto. 

Thank you, Bessma, for the introduction and the invitation. It is  a pleasure to be here. I also want to thank Defence and Security Foresight Group and NATO Association of Canada for organizing this great event. It is a hard act to follow these great speakers. So I’ll do my best to wrap this up very quickly in 10-12 minutes and open up for discussion. I’d like to pick up on some of the themes that we discussed in the morning regarding sort of this sense of polarization that seems to permeate every aspect of politics today. This is part of a recent project that I’m just starting to develop on moral polarization and international order, which emerged as a result of my work on microfoundations of international order.

And during that work, what I looked at, and realized, was that the moral distance between societies as well as the leaders is an important determinant of what kind of international orders emerge when times of change, such as after great wars, do come.

So that leads me to think more about moral polarization. Moral polarization, or affective polarization, or moralization of politics, refers to the phenomenon in which the debate, the rhetoric, and the beliefs within a society, both at the public and the elite level, are not only about disagreements about specific policy issues but are couched in terms of good versus evil, of describing the other as not only wrong on that policy issue but of being hypocritical, being cruel, being evil, and a resistance to compromise because “how can you compromise with evil?”. Thus the issue is not ideological polarization, that is, having radically different ideas of what kind of policy would bring the greatest benefit, but it is portraying the other side as inhuman, as someone who is willing to go to great lengths to destroy the way of life of the other party.

And it is not a new phenomenon. Of course we had this for ages, this moralization of politics. We have been talking about this in political science a lot for a long time, but what is really happening today is that we are having this moral polarization, the moralization of politics and the spillover of this beyond political issues, on at least four different levels. So we have moral polarization in a horizontal way within the public. You have what the research group called More Common describes as progressive activists, on the one hand, and devoted conservatives, on the other hand, in the US, for example. Almost on every subject from immigration to climate change to economy to the importance of gender equality, they are on opposite sides of the debate and use language that is very much polarized.

So you have a public that is polarized, that is, a horizontal polarization. You have an increasing polarization, a vertical polarization within the society between the public and the elite. This is not only within the Western world, but also as we can see throughout the protests ranging from Chile to Lebanon to Hong Kong. Across the world, not only in the Western world, between the public that is disillusioned, that is frustrated with the ruling elite or at least part of the ruling elite due to corruption, mismanagement, nepotism, and general sense of decay versus an elite that tries to maintain their position.

So there is a polarization within the nation in a vertical sense. And there is a third level, which is elite to elite polarization; some within the political elite use this dissatisfaction to gain power, the populist nationalists around the world from Trump to Orban to others, use this particular set of dissatisfaction to cast themselves as against the elite, or a counter-elite, if you wish.

Despite the fact that most of the time, most of them come from what would normally be described as elite social circles because of birth, education, socio-economic background, etc., they cast themselves as the “man of the people and for the people” versus the other as this distant elite. Others (i.e. the distant elite), on the other hand, argue that the populist nationalists are demagogues who want to take over and destroy the liberal institutions we have in the West and elsewhere.

Lastly, you have not only this sort of elite-level polarization within the country but across the world; polarization between the defenders of the liberal world order that is “good and holy” and “responsible for all the good in the world,” on the one hand, and the challengers of this order, who are “authoritarian nationalists willing to go back to the 19th century”.

This is the sort of language that we have at the international level, this time polarization between these two forces. And it does come at a point in time when material power, in terms of both political and economic power, is also shifting from the former defenders of the liberal order towards those who are now challenging the order.

So you have an overlapping of at least four levels of polarization, moral polarization and increasing moral polarization, in the world, which makes compromise in governance very, very hard. You don’t need big numbers to have moral polarization. When you look at the United States, Canada, Denmark, Germany, UK, and elsewhere, the sort of the wings that are within the political spectrum that are highly polarized and actively involved tends to be anywhere in total between 20 to 30% of the population. You have about 2/3 of the population that is the disillusioned, disengaged, and exhausted majority in the middle, but the wings tend to dominate both the rhetoric and the policy.

You don’t need much to have a  highly polarized society. And it makes the whole idea of global governance very hard. Partly because, as I said, how would you be able to negotiate with evil if that’s your framing of the other is? You cannot compromise with that. And once that position is set, it’s very, very, very hard to change. It also makes the maintenance of the existing multilateral institutions very hard because it is a continuous work of negotiation and adjustment. It is not something that was set in 1945 and continued to exist today. It is an evolving set of institutions and it is a continuous set of work to work through the problems and maintain that and if the members of those institutions started to define themselves in terms of good and evil, it’s very hard to maintain the existing arrangements as well.

It is also very hard in a morally polarized environment to reform the existing institutions or create new institutions. If when I’m sitting across from you at the table, if I believe you are hypocritical, if you are evil, if I believe you are there to destroy what I hold dear, I will not necessarily trust you to follow whatever the new rule set that we will be developing.

If you believe that I am here to oppress you, if you believe that my position is to continue to keep you down and not give you the rightful place that you believe you are owed at the table, you will not believe the promises of reform. And in an environment in which it’s very, very hard to move these two sides together, you will not be able to reform the institutions neither domestically nor at the global level. Provisions of global public goods will also suffer in an environment that is morally polarized. I don’t want to really get into the debate of liberal hegemony and what not, but the whole idea of provisioning global public goods such as the freedom of navigation, for example, is all about certain actors taking the burden of providing them for the rest of the international community.

If you believe the other party now, which is gaining power and gaining influence and gaining resources, will be challenging your very dearly held values, you will start thinking “is this wise?”, providing those public goods that actually enables the others to develop their power. And lastly, moral polarization makes the issue of dealing with global challenges such as climate change extremely hard. Again, once you sit down to resolve these issues, which do require a lot of back-and-forth negotiation and compromise, if you get into that particular table as describing the issue in moral terms, other than how to achieve commonly agreed public goods, it’s very, very hard to coordinate action when you need to coordinate action with people you literally abhor. So those are very difficult issues to deal with.

Well, not all is lost. This sounds a little pessimistic, but then I’m a realist. So you know, I’m a cautious pessimist, never a cautious optimist. But there are things that can be done to mitigate the effects of moral polarization.

What works? What works in terms of decreasing moral polarization? Research on social psychology, moral psychology, decades of work suggest that first it is a very hard thing to do. It’s not easy, it’s hard work, but there are things that would work. One simple method is correcting misconceptions. Literally putting people in a room and telling them like, “Okay, your description of the other party, your stereotypical example of other party is actually factually inaccurate.”

In the United States, for example, the modal Democrat and Republican is the same. When you look at sort of the distribution in terms if you take the modal distributions there, it is white male middle-class, but that’s not what you would get if you ask a Democrat what is the modal Republican, if you ask a Republican what is the modal Democrat. For example only 2% of Republicans earn more than $250,000 a year. That would not necessarily be what you get if you ask, “How would you describe a modal Republican to Democrat?”

So correcting misconceptions is known to reduce moral polarization. We know that it actually decreases the moralization, presenting others in human terms. Reducing the salience of moralizing identities is also known to decrease moral polarization. Having diverse social networks, that is talking to other people that you don’t agree with on fundamental issues, reduces moral polarization in most cases.

Lastly, encouraging in-group affection rather than out-group hostility and animosity is a useful way of making sure that people feel secure in their identities and take part in that however you developed a particular group identity. So instead of developing outgroup hostility, you develop in-group affection, which does not necessarily lead to moralization of politics. All these can very much be applicable at the global level.

Understanding that the other parties are not out of this world, are not out there to destroy one’s way of life necessarily is a useful first step in reducing moral polarization. That doesn’t mean that evil doesn’t exist and it’s generally banal as Hanna Arendt pointed out, but it means that most of the time it is a matter of prioritization of different moral values and different people have these different sets of values. That doesn’t mean that you cannot sit down and agree on common challenges and how to deal with them. And that’s perhaps the best way forward, and I’ll stop there because I am already over my time. Thank you all very much.

Bio: Balkan Devlen is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen. His primary research interests include; security challenges in NATO’s Eastern and Southern flanks, the foreign and security policies of Russia and Turkey, decision-making under uncertainty, and forecasting and strategic foresight. Dr. Devlen has given several invited talks and provided training to diverse audiences including senior policy-makers in Europe, the US, and Canada. He is a regular commentator in a wide range of international media outlets on Turkey, Russia, and the Middle East. Recently he was Ozerdinc-Grimes Fellow at the Centre in Modern Turkish Studies (MTS) at NPSIA – Carleton University in 2019. Previously he was a Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellow, Black Sea Young Reformers Fellow, and Levin Institute Fellow. He is currently working on a book manuscript on moral polarization and international order. You can follow him on Twitter @BalkanDevlen

Photo by Stephanie Mahe (Reuters)


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