Inclusive governance at a time of political polarisation

Published on 11 January 2021

Image of Shandana Khan Mohmand

Shandana Khan Mohmand

Cluster leader and Research Fellow

The protest-turned-riot at the Capitol building in Washington DC on January 6th was shocking and has led to intense soul searching on the state of democracy today. For those that study institutions of governance, the big question is about how these are able to withstand assaults by populist leaders like Trump. For those that study voters, the question is why people are susceptible to extreme polarisation prompted by the rhetoric of populist leaders. And for those of us that study development, a major question is about how inclusive governance can survive in a time of such polarisation.

Two common mistakes

There are two frequent mistakes we make in talking about inclusive governance. The first one is to think of it as an ‘obvious’, a concept that requires little debate in terms of being a policy option. How can you disagree with the idea that everyone should be included in the goals of development? But, in a world pulled apart by political polarisation – where populations are not only deeply divided across lines defined by politics, religion and ethnicity but are being drawn to the extremes of these identities — it is anything but an obvious concept, or an obvious policy option.

Political polarisation affects how policymakers make policy, who they make it for, and what they include in it. It determines, for example, whether the provision of quality universal healthcare is on the policy agenda in the many countries around the world where it still is not. The line that divides the political left from the right has turned what should have been an obvious policy agenda — ensuring quality healthcare to everyone regardless of income or employment status — into a matter of ideology.

Similar dividing lines have kept other issues underfunded or simply absent from policy agendas. Why, for example, has universal income not become an obvious agenda item in a year defined by governments facing difficult choices between keeping populations safe and securing livelihoods through lockdowns? Why does the progressiveness of Europe not better ensure the right of life of clearly at risk migrants and refugees that arrive at its shores? Why are we still struggling for equal rights and security of life for religious, ethnic and sexual minorities? And centrally, why does everyone in the world still not have access free and quality education for all, given how well established its links to social transformation and equality are?

The second mistake we make often is to think of the lack of inclusive governance as a failure of governance — the result of regime instability or of weak, struggling, under-resourced governments. All of these contribute but the lack of inclusive governance is just as much a result of policy design as it is of weak governance. This means that for inclusive governance to meet its goals we must take on and address the ideology that it is underpinned by.

However, here lies the challenge. In the process of achieving the goals of inclusive governance we cannot create yet another ‘us vs. them’ divider — the good and benevolent who want development for all vs. the bad and evil who clearly do not. This is for two inter-related reasons.

First, polarisation is defined by each side thinking they are the only ones that are right. A look through online platforms where the rioters reacted to the results of the American election and planned Wednesday’s events, including the thousands of comments on Trump’s tweets, is illuminating. The language used by both sides of the spectrum seems to be the same – they are each defending the American constitution, safeguarding democracy, worried for the future of their country. Both sides are equally surprised that the ‘others’ cannot see this as clearly as they can.

Second, even the exclusive style of governance is elected. Right-wing governments and policies around the world have the support of half the voting population. Exclusionary policies are not just made by dictatorships ruling despite the will of the people, but also by elected governments responding to the preferences of their voters. When they make policies that exclude population groups, or more usually, when they refuse policy reforms that seek to redistribute greater benefits to women, poor people, minorities, or refugees, they are responding to and staying accountable to their support base.

This is the challenge created for inclusive governance by political polarisation — how do you ensure inclusion when voting majorities demand exclusion?

What might work?

For some the answer to inclusive government lies in working as close to communities as possible through better designed, better resourced, and more empowered local governments. Issues are resolved where people can sit together, understand how policies impact their communities, and see how national rhetoric translates to local realities.

Others would suggest inclusive government relies on working to establish more bipartisan coalitions within national parliaments that reduce the tendency to vote almost purely along party lines. This is possibly helped along by a national crisis that might make representatives more amenable to such cooperation.

Yet others point to the need for conventional editorial and social media to take greater responsibility for the fear, insecurity, and conspiracies that are circulated on their platforms. This was defined at the end of last week with Twitter and Facebook suspending a sitting president’s accounts because of security risks. But, to great extent this is a cosmetic measure, and in a politically polarised context, will be interpreted as the muffling of voice on only one side of the spectrum. Fox news already cast this as “the crackdown of America’s civil liberties is coming”.

A much harder solution, and one we can do little about through development interventions, is for representatives to reconsider what governing and accountability mean to them. Since Wednesday’s riots, Republican representatives have suggested that the party may be seriously damaged, and that rebuilding it will require them to disconnect from the demands of their support base to return to some central values of the party that were distorted by a populist leader  – “not worrying about base politics so much and standing up to that base”, according to Republican representative Tom Reed of New York. But, that simply suggests that there is nothing else amiss in the Republican party.

Inclusive governance is not just about strengthening governance against populist leaders, but also about addressing the deep-seated reasons that exclusionary governance makes sense to voters. Racism in the US, anti-immigration rhetoric in Europe, pro-Brexit ideas in the UK, Islamisation in Turkey and Pakistan, Islamophobia in India and Myanmar, and Shia-Sunni sectarianism across the Muslim world are not the result of weak governance but of deliberatively divisive governance that have long histories and popular support.

Populist leaders build off weak or failed governance. Idealogues on either side work with a deeper philosophy that creates much larger challenges. It is the polarisation created by this that we need to address in working on inclusive governance.

Polarisation will affect vaccinations too

All this has a direct link with the current challenge of administering vaccines to enough people to end the pandemic. Vaccine uptake rates are bound to be affected by political polarisation and whether current governments are trusted by everyone when they put out public health messages. We know this from studying anti-vaxxers and a growing body of evidence that finds such attitudes are correlated with support for populist politics.

From wild conspiracy theories about the government (or Bill Gates) using this moment to embed tracking chips in us, to more rational questions about the side effects of the vaccine, immunisation drives will be affected by the “infodemic” that accompanies the pandemic, according to WHO Director General Ghebreyesus. The challenge of political polarisation is not just one for governance but, as we are finding, critical to our health systems, vaccine roll out and ultimately, our recovery from Covid in 2021.

Interesting resources on this: