By Silja Häusermann, Simon Bornschier

Several developments over the past decade in Western democracies have sparked worries about political stability. Among them, the rise of radical political parties, heated polarization around questions of immigration, nationalism, or social liberalism, and – in some instances – even attacks on democratic institutions, stand out. However, conflict and choice between clearly distinct alternative ideas of how societies and economies should be governed are at the heart of democracy. Democracy needs competition and conflict. But where is the line between healthy and harmful conflict and polarization?

In this paper, we explain that an interpretation of today’s state of democratic conflict as chaotic, fragmented or volatile is misleading. Rather, Western democracies are in a process of a fundamental restructuring of the main political dividing line: a new social cleavage between universalistic and particularistic ideas of social, economic, and political organization, between openness and closure, has been emerging over the past decades. This conflict is rooted in social groups defined by education, occupation, and territory, it relates to underlying collective identities on both sides, and it will dominate democratic party competition for the foreseeable future. It is not per se harmful to democracy, but reflects genuinely different visions of desirable social order. However, under certain conditions, it can turn on democracy itself.

The last part of this paper then discusses the functional and dysfunctional implications of polarized political conflict for democracy. How is conflict and polarization healthy and under what conditions is it likely to endanger the very legitimacy and institutional stability of democracies? Building on existing knowledge about the dynamics of polarization, we discuss political and institutional means to contain polarization and to protect democratic stability.


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