Polarization, lack of deliberation and changing the status quo

by Hussain Bokhari

Pakistani society is as polarized as it has ever been. The country is coming apart at the seams due to schisms across political, ideological, ethnic, religious, and social dimensions. Political parties that are either inept or unwilling to ask the right questions to address the issues affecting the masses (as indicated by a 2013 British Council survey in which 69% of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of political parties); increasingly misinformed ideological viewpoints among ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ (as illustrated by the general lack of awareness on both sides about what either ideology really advocates); continued penchant for viewing ourselves and our issues across ethnic lines rather than as a nation (as evidenced by the existence of political parties with ethnic agendas and their success across ethnic lines); existence of mindless religious views which continue to rage on (e.g., TTP); and greater economic inequality between the classes (e.g., real income of the bottom quintile of households has declined while the top quintile has risen) are all indicators of these schisms that continue to lead to a more fractured society.

While it is natural for people to take a stance on opposite ends of a spectrum on a single issue, that alone does not result in a polarized society. However, if people align along multiple issues, regardless of whether their position is moderately opposed or extreme in nature, the outcome is a polarized society (Baldassarri and Gelman 2008). This public opinion polarization across different dimensions adversely affects any efforts that may result in conflict resolution. Polarization reduces a society’s ability to reach consensus on any set of issues. As polarization increases, it becomes more likely that different groups with irreconcilable policy preferences emerge (DiMaggio, Evans and Bryson 1996). This inevitably leads to the formation of groups that take up opposing positions, which can eventually lead to conflicts within society. In my opinion, public opinion in Pakistan is heavily influenced by the dimensions mentioned earlier (i.e., Political party allegiance, ideology, ethnicity, religion, economic conditions). While our society is fragmented, polarization in my view occurs when people align across the aforementioned dimensions (i.e., low-income/conservative/religious vs. high-income/liberal/secular). This shifts the focus away from debating individual issues and fosters an ‘us versus them’ mentality, which ultimately limits the society’s ability to resolve conflict.

Public opinion polarization has far reaching implications in a democratic system. First, it permeates into the political sphere as politicians represent their increasingly polarized electorates (Abramowitz 2006), resulting in the diminished ability of the government to formulate effective policy (Galston and Nivola 2006; Brady, Ferejohn and Harbridge 2008). The various tools and tactics of partisan politics lead to gridlock in the policy-making process (Brady et al., 2008). Second, it can influence the actual outputs of the legislative body (Sinclair, 2008) and often polarized debate over the courts also undermines the stability of the judicial branch (Binder, 2008). Finally, the increase in ideological divisions, political gridlock, and negative campaigning can alienate citizens from the political process and disengage moderate voices (Hetherington, 2008; Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995), which inevitably leads to a more polarized democratic system.

As moderate elements disengage from the political discourse, the public discourse and subsequently the political elite that represent that public will become more polarized. This vicious cycle that leads to a more fragmented society. This, in my opinion is a key shortcoming of representative democracy that needs to be addressed. In order to break and reverse this trend of polarization, these moderate elements need to be brought back into the fold as engaged political citizens.

One way to accomplish this is to augment representative democracy by integrating elements of participatory and deliberative democracy. In a representative democracy, citizens exercise political rights by electing representatives that advocate their interest through public policy. The political process is therefore a means for the public to aggregate their preferences in choosing public officials and policies (Downs 1957, Sartori 1957, Dahl 1971). Other views of democracy state that a greater level of public engagement is required in the actual decision-making process through citizen empowerment and rational deliberation (Rosenberg 2007; Dryzek 2009). Advocates of participatory democracy believe that a legitimate democracy would have the active participation of citizens in matters of family, workplace and even in public institutions (Lynd 1965, Arnstein 1969, Pateman 1970, Bachrach 1975, Barber 1984). On the other hand, proponents of deliberative democracy emphasize the importance fostering an environment in which rational deliberation is at the center of the decision-making process. While there are some differences among theorists with regards to what part of society takes part in the deliberation (i.e., the ruling elite vs. civil society), legitimate democracy is achieved in this paradigm when free and equal citizens address issues by reasoning and debating amongst themselves (Cohen 1989; Benhabib 1996), with “the unforced force of the of the better argument” (Habermas 1984) determining policy decisions. As a result, the deliberative process plays the role of transforming perspectives instead of aggregating public preferences (Elster 1998). Deliberative democracy theorists advocate that public deliberation can help achieve a greater level of consensus and reduced polarization through debate (Habermas 1996, Bohman 1998; Fishkin 1991, Guttmann and Thompson 1996, Bentham 1816).

As such, I believe that borrowing from the fundamentals of participatory democracy (which focuses on expanding the political sphere to include ordinary citizens) and adopting the principles of deliberative democracy (which focus on the quality of rational debate within the political sphere), moderate elements of society can be integrated into the political process, and actively play a role to reduce polarization. While this is simple enough to propose, implementing it is a challenge of a different magnitude altogether. For a concept like this to succeed, a number of stakeholders in society need to come together and play their role. This includes citizens, the government, political parties, experts, and the media (Carcasson and Sprain, 2010).

First and foremost, citizens themselves need to be involved in their community beyond the extent to which they are today. At best, the engagement of the average Pakistani in the current setup is limited to voting once every four years (if that opportunity arises), paying taxes (in a few cases), and entangling in armchair political discussions which revolve around assembling under various political banners to blame each other for the failings of the state. The key missing element is the role of citizens as problem solvers. While it is partially up to the government to give citizens the opportunity to be involved in situations where they can take on this role, the onus is on us to play an active and constructive role in society. There are several avenues through which this can be pursued: Articulating your concerns to local leaders, and more importantly, offering suggestions on how they can be addressed; volunteering in societies and organizations where you can play a constructive role (e.g., teaching in an underfunded school); voicing the concerns/ issues of someone in your community whose voice is ‘not significant enough’ to be heard. While these efforts will not yield immediate results, and in a lot of instances, are likely to produce demoralizing responses, this type of citizen involvement and concern is an important ingredient in successful societies and will be required if positive, sustainable long-term change is to take place in Pakistan.

Second, as mentioned previously, there is an important role for the government to play in promoting deliberation. A large part of this is facilitating the deliberative process by identifying areas of deliberation, equipping people with the necessary tools to effectively take part in deliberation (e.g., educational material, guidelines), and providing the space for the public to convene and interact. The most important role of the government in a deliberative process is to ensure that the outcome of such interactions are incorporated into regulation, legislation and policy where it merits such consideration. Inaction in this regard will inevitably lead to a disenfranchised public with little change to the status quo. The importance of the role of the Government notwithstanding, it is extremely unlikely that any deliberative processes will be initiated in a top-down manner in Pakistan. Any such initiatives will likely have to be citizen driven, and only once critical mass is achieved, will the government then start to take the outcomes produced by such efforts into consideration.

Third, political parties across the country need to adopt deliberative interaction as a means to inform their manifestos and policies. Politics in Pakistan has rarely been issue-based and the policies that have been implemented in the past have partially led the failures of the country. Deliberation has the ability to address both of these problems as parties can reach out to their constituents for a ‘pulse-check’ that captures issues which impact the public, and also integrate useful input from capable people within society (e.g., academia, private sector, professional services) to help develop more effective policy viewpoints. Once again, this shift is less like to come from the political parties themselves, but rather needs to be initiated by the constituents of these parties. More specifically, it is those who are both educated and not bound by financial/social burdens who need to take initiative as they are best positioned to do so.

Fourth, experts from various fields (e.g., economics, healthcare, education, energy, law, law enforcement, transportation etc.) have a vital role to play in any deliberative interaction. It is important that deliberation be rational and based on facts, knowledge and research. Experts need to be involved in the process to provide supporting materials and insights that stimulate meaningful debate. Furthermore, they need to play a part in synthesizing outcomes of any discussions, provide feedback on conclusions and help incorporate findings into policy formulation undertaken by the government and political parties. It is important to recognize however, that the role of experts is to aid and moderate discussion, and not dictate proceedings themselves. While it is necessary for participants to leverage these resources, it is equally important to avoid ‘fact wars’. Regurgitating facts without meaningful deliberation among citizens themselves can lead to individuals being entrenched in their views and result in increased polarization.

Finally, the media needs to play a critical part in promoting deliberative principles. The Pakistani media has come a long way over the last decade, and is increasingly playing the role of a watchdog and provider of information which is required in a traditional democracy. However, it needs to expand its role by advancing public discussion through reports on issues faced by the public and the relevant facts & trade-offs related to the possible options for resolving those issues. There needs to be a shift away from the type of sensationalism that usually accompanies 24-hour news networks, which (in my view) worsen elite and public opinion polarization by creating a spectacle out of the underlying conflict between political parties for rating purposes.

There are several criticisms and challenges that deliberative and participatory democracy concepts face, even more so in a society like Pakistan. Some will disregard these notions as ‘too idealistic and impractical’. Others will question the effectiveness of public involvement given illiteracy rates in the country. Those familiar with literature on democracy may cite works that indicate deliberation can result in increased polarization. All of these are valid concerns, but none that merit the exclusion of these principles. Pakistan is a polarized society, and the situation will continue to worsen if the status quo remains. The current setup limits citizen involvement in the democratic system and discourages moderate voices from participating in the political process. Deliberative and participatory principles help re-integrate moderate elements into the political process, which will in turn help curb polarization. For these principles to take hold and create positive change, every stakeholder, specifically citizens, will need to play their part in a well thought-out manner. If successful, we may just be able to create a less polarized society in Pakistan.

Pakistani society is as polarized as it has ever been. The country is coming apart at the seams due to schisms across political, ideological, ethnic, religious, and social dimensions. Political parties that are either inept or unwilling to ask the right questions to address the issues affecting the masses (as indicated by a 2013 British Council survey in which 69% of Pakistanis have an unfavorable view of political parties); increasingly misinformed ideological viewpoints among ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ (as illustrated by the general lack of awareness on both sides about what either ideology really advocates); continued penchant for viewing ourselves and our issues across ethnic lines rather than as a nation (as evidenced by the existence of political parties with ethnic agendas and their success across ethnic lines); existence of mindless religious views which continue to rage on (e.g., TTP); and greater economic inequality between the classes (e.g., real income of the bottom quintile of households has declined while the top quintile has risen) are all indicators of these schisms that continue to lead to a more fractured society.

While it is natural for people to take a stance on opposite ends of a spectrum on a single issue, that alone does not result in a polarized society. However, if people align along multiple issues, regardless of whether their position is moderately opposed or extreme in nature, the outcome is a polarized society (Baldassarri and Gelman 2008). This public opinion polarization across different dimensions adversely affects any efforts that may result in conflict resolution. Polarization reduces a society’s ability to reach consensus on any set of issues. As polarization increases, it becomes more likely that different groups with irreconcilable policy preferences emerge (DiMaggio, Evans and Bryson 1996). This inevitably leads to the formation of groups that take up opposing positions, which can eventually lead to conflicts within society. In my opinion, public opinion in Pakistan is heavily influenced by the dimensions mentioned earlier (i.e., Political party allegiance, ideology, ethnicity, religion, economic conditions). While our society is fragmented, polarization in my view occurs when people align across the aforementioned dimensions (i.e., low-income/conservative/religious vs. high-income/liberal/secular). This shifts the focus away from debating individual issues and fosters an ‘us versus them’ mentality, which ultimately limits the society’s ability to resolve conflict.

Public opinion polarization has far reaching implications in a democratic system. First, it permeates into the political sphere as politicians represent their increasingly polarized electorates (Abramowitz 2006), resulting in the diminished ability of the government to formulate effective policy (Galston and Nivola 2006; Brady, Ferejohn and Harbridge 2008). The various tools and tactics of partisan politics lead to gridlock in the policy-making process (Brady et al., 2008). Second, it can influence the actual outputs of the legislative body (Sinclair, 2008) and often polarized debate over the courts also undermines the stability of the judicial branch (Binder, 2008). Finally, the increase in ideological divisions, political gridlock, and negative campaigning can alienate citizens from the political process and disengage moderate voices (Hetherington, 2008; Ansolabehere and Iyengar 1995), which inevitably leads to a more polarized democratic system.

As moderate elements disengage from the political discourse, the public discourse and subsequently the political elite that represent that public will become more polarized. This vicious cycle that leads to a more fragmented society. This, in my opinion is a key shortcoming of representative democracy that needs to be addressed. In order to break and reverse this trend of polarization, these moderate elements need to be brought back into the fold as engaged political citizens.

One way to accomplish this is to augment representative democracy by integrating elements of participatory and deliberative democracy. In a representative democracy, citizens exercise political rights by electing representatives that advocate their interest through public policy. The political process is therefore a means for the public to aggregate their preferences in choosing public officials and policies (Downs 1957, Sartori 1957, Dahl 1971). Other views of democracy state that a greater level of public engagement is required in the actual decision-making process through citizen empowerment and rational deliberation (Rosenberg 2007; Dryzek 2009). Advocates of participatory democracy believe that a legitimate democracy would have the active participation of citizens in matters of family, workplace and even in public institutions (Lynd 1965, Arnstein 1969, Pateman 1970, Bachrach 1975, Barber 1984). On the other hand, proponents of deliberative democracy emphasize the importance fostering an environment in which rational deliberation is at the center of the decision-making process. While there are some differences among theorists with regards to what part of society takes part in the deliberation (i.e., the ruling elite vs. civil society), legitimate democracy is achieved in this paradigm when free and equal citizens address issues by reasoning and debating amongst themselves (Cohen 1989; Benhabib 1996), with “the unforced force of the of the better argument” (Habermas 1984) determining policy decisions. As a result, the deliberative process plays the role of transforming perspectives instead of aggregating public preferences (Elster 1998). Deliberative democracy theorists advocate that public deliberation can help achieve a greater level of consensus and reduced polarization through debate (Habermas 1996, Bohman 1998; Fishkin 1991, Guttmann and Thompson 1996, Bentham 1816).

As such, I believe that borrowing from the fundamentals of participatory democracy (which focuses on expanding the political sphere to include ordinary citizens) and adopting the principles of deliberative democracy (which focus on the quality of rational debate within the political sphere), moderate elements of society can be integrated into the political process, and actively play a role to reduce polarization. While this is simple enough to propose, implementing it is a challenge of a different magnitude altogether. For a concept like this to succeed, a number of stakeholders in society need to come together and play their role. This includes citizens, the government, political parties, experts, and the media (Carcasson and Sprain, 2010).

First and foremost, citizens themselves need to be involved in their community beyond the extent to which they are today. At best, the engagement of the average Pakistani in the current setup is limited to voting once every four years (if that opportunity arises), paying taxes (in a few cases), and entangling in armchair political discussions which revolve around assembling under various political banners to blame each other for the failings of the state. The key missing element is the role of citizens as problem solvers. While it is partially up to the government to give citizens the opportunity to be involved in situations where they can take on this role, the onus is on us to play an active and constructive role in society. There are several avenues through which this can be pursued: Articulating your concerns to local leaders, and more importantly, offering suggestions on how they can be addressed; volunteering in societies and organizations where you can play a constructive role (e.g., teaching in an underfunded school); voicing the concerns/ issues of someone in your community whose voice is ‘not significant enough’ to be heard. While these efforts will not yield immediate results, and in a lot of instances, are likely to produce demoralizing responses, this type of citizen involvement and concern is an important ingredient in successful societies and will be required if positive, sustainable long-term change is to take place in Pakistan.

Second, as mentioned previously, there is an important role for the government to play in promoting deliberation. A large part of this is facilitating the deliberative process by identifying areas of deliberation, equipping people with the necessary tools to effectively take part in deliberation (e.g., educational material, guidelines), and providing the space for the public to convene and interact. The most important role of the government in a deliberative process is to ensure that the outcome of such interactions are incorporated into regulation, legislation and policy where it merits such consideration. Inaction in this regard will inevitably lead to a disenfranchised public with little change to the status quo. The importance of the role of the Government notwithstanding, it is extremely unlikely that any deliberative processes will be initiated in a top-down manner in Pakistan. Any such initiatives will likely have to be citizen driven, and only once critical mass is achieved, will the government then start to take the outcomes produced by such efforts into consideration.

Third, political parties across the country need to adopt deliberative interaction as a means to inform their manifestos and policies. Politics in Pakistan has rarely been issue-based and the policies that have been implemented in the past have partially led the failures of the country. Deliberation has the ability to address both of these problems as parties can reach out to their constituents for a ‘pulse-check’ that captures issues which impact the public, and also integrate useful input from capable people within society (e.g., academia, private sector, professional services) to help develop more effective policy viewpoints. Once again, this shift is less like to come from the political parties themselves, but rather needs to be initiated by the constituents of these parties. More specifically, it is those who are both educated and not bound by financial/social burdens who need to take initiative as they are best positioned to do so.

Fourth, experts from various fields (e.g., economics, healthcare, education, energy, law, law enforcement, transportation etc.) have a vital role to play in any deliberative interaction. It is important that deliberation be rational and based on facts, knowledge and research. Experts need to be involved in the process to provide supporting materials and insights that stimulate meaningful debate. Furthermore, they need to play a part in synthesizing outcomes of any discussions, provide feedback on conclusions and help incorporate findings into policy formulation undertaken by the government and political parties. It is important to recognize however, that the role of experts is to aid and moderate discussion, and not dictate proceedings themselves. While it is necessary for participants to leverage these resources, it is equally important to avoid ‘fact wars’. Regurgitating facts without meaningful deliberation among citizens themselves can lead to individuals being entrenched in their views and result in increased polarization.

Finally, the media needs to play a critical part in promoting deliberative principles. The Pakistani media has come a long way over the last decade, and is increasingly playing the role of a watchdog and provider of information which is required in a traditional democracy. However, it needs to expand its role by advancing public discussion through reports on issues faced by the public and the relevant facts & trade-offs related to the possible options for resolving those issues. There needs to be a shift away from the type of sensationalism that usually accompanies 24-hour news networks, which (in my view) worsen elite and public opinion polarization by creating a spectacle out of the underlying conflict between political parties for rating purposes.

There are several criticisms and challenges that deliberative and participatory democracy concepts face, even more so in a society like Pakistan. Some will disregard these notions as ‘too idealistic and impractical’. Others will question the effectiveness of public involvement given illiteracy rates in the country. Those familiar with literature on democracy may cite works that indicate deliberation can result in increased polarization. All of these are valid concerns, but none that merit the exclusion of these principles. Pakistan is a polarized society, and the situation will continue to worsen if the status quo remains. The current setup limits citizen involvement in the democratic system and discourages moderate voices from participating in the political process. Deliberative and participatory principles help re-integrate moderate elements into the political process, which will in turn help curb polarization. For these principles to take hold and create positive change, every stakeholder, specifically citizens, will need to play their part in a well thought-out manner. If successful, we may just be able to create a less polarized society in Pakistan.

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