Depicting opponents as being morally deficient plays well at campaign rallies but it blocks solutions. Media organisations have also spurred polarisation by demoting non-partisan, objective reporting.

President Biden accusing his Russian counterpart of war crimes plays well with much of his base and others. Yet, under most plausible scenarios, this makes an acceptable outcome more elusive. Despite his capacity for barbarism, there are significant advantages to having Putin remain in power while other countries maintain diplomatic relations with Russia. 

If Putin’s reign suddenly ended, it is unlikely that his replacement would be liberal minded. Russia is not ready to transition from its patronage-focused and ultra-nationalistic style of governance. However, the costs of the war and the resulting sanctions are likely to foster stiff opposition within, say, three years.

The larger consideration is that Putin’s precariously remaining in power is a check on China’s support for Russia. The big risk for Beijing is that Putin’s successor turns decisively away from China to embrace the West. The best case for Beijing would be Putin quickly being replaced by a younger version of himself. Such an outcome would be likely if Putin departs this year. 

Whereas Putin had portrayed Ukraine’s leadership as “little Nazis”, the extreme popularity of Ukraine’s Jewish president now empowers him to cut a deal with enough concessions to allow Putin to stay in power. If Putin is soon replaced, Zelensky’s and the West’s negotiating leverage would decline. Any replacement would no doubt claim to have opposed the war.

Vilification also leads to underestimating the opposition. Very nearly all the experts expected Russia to overwhelm Ukraine and most believed the West’s response would be modest. Putin was not foolish to think his invasion would succeed.

Sinner or saint 

Our path to polarisation-induced policy paralysis includes how veneration for Mandela undercut the ANC’s accountability. CEOs, public commentators and even opposition parties curbed their ANC criticisms until journalistic exposés, followed by release of the Gupta emails, revealed the breadth of the party’s corrupt ways.

Julius Malema inspires a lot of voter support, in part, because frustrated people are glad he says things that upset well-educated, affluent people who, from his supporters’ perspective, seem relaxed about their plight. Ditto regarding Donald Trump.

Of course we have to make value judgments about people and policies. But telling ourselves we are better than Malema, Trump, or Putin leads, all too often, to our dismissing their followers as idiots or ‘deplorables’. 

This sacrifices the empathic listening and pragmatism needed to inform solutions and dislodge unhelpful voting patterns.

Media

The rise of polarisation and identity politics across democracies is routinely attributed to social media and inequality. But the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have provided ample reasons to suspect that established media channels have also played a key, and perhaps even a leading, role.

Pre-internet access to quality news flows had been slow, limited and expensive. Ubiquitous internet access greatly benefited consumers while devastating news generated revenues. As their options proliferated, consumers drifted toward sources that aligned with their views. The market for balanced reporting suffered. An important exception has been business publications as their audiences prioritise accuracy over entertainment or validation of biases.

Non-partisan reporting had always been more of an ideal than a realistic option and then the internet undermined its commercial viability. As reporting became more partisan it was frequently enthused with a creeping elitism. We-know-best and we-are-better-than-them attitudes are mutually reinforcing – until nearly all governments and experts are tripped up by something like a global pandemic.

A free press criticising decisions is essential for holding governments accountable. However, with non-partisanship in decline amid hectic competition for readers and viewers, it becomes very tempting to suggest, with the advantage of hindsight, that the correct path was clear from the start. Resentment to lockdowns, masks and vaccine mandates was stirred by social media but the know-it-allness of many established media voices also incited high volume resentments. Much polarisation traces to elites dismissing with disdain the views of those less formally educated. 

Their favourite experts are frequently wrong but media houses have the huge advantage of being able to frame the issues. Thus, their reporting can withstand much fact-checking scrutiny while being decidedly – though oftentimes subtly – partisan.

Clarity is power

Prior to our inconsequential 2019 election that focused on corruption and personalities, best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari helped revive the mantra ‘clarity is power’. The values of our leaders are very important but our national dialogue continues to be dominated by such issues. To this day, none of our leaders, in or out of politics, is articulating an adequate growth plan. 

Yet, if the 2024 election doesn’t inspire abrupt, growth-inspiring policy shifts, continued ultra-elevated youth unemployment will unleash unaffordable social unrest.

If the options are between people who are good at packaging what we want to hear versus those who have a workable plan, we need to be clear headed about our choices – and their prospective consequences. Our voices should better balance how bad actors are vilified with pressuring for doable solutions.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


contributor

Shawn Hagedorn worked in banking, finance and capital markets in New York City and London before emigrating to South Africa. He holds degrees in finance, economics, and international business and his writing has appeared in a number of publications including Business Day, Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, and Politicsweb, amongst others.