Too Often Disagreement Means Enmity. But Bridging Extremes Is the Best Bet for Our Future

By Javier González

What are the obstacles and opportunities facing democracy today? Zócalo is publishing a series of letters to highlight how the world’s democratic ideals are faring in practice. From Mexico: Public policy expert Javier Gonzalez explores how the country might use its rampant polarization to build better dialogue.

This series is presented in tandem with Thursday’s Zócalo event in Mexico City—“Are Elected Presidents Bad for Democracy?,” presented in partnership with Democracy International and Metropolitan Autonomous University for the Global Forum for Modern Direct Democracy 2023.

What does polarization mean, here in Mexico?

There are no democracies without some kind of polarization, which is not in itself harmful or pathological. Democratic institutions are designed to channel dissent, allow peaceful competition between groups and parties, and process differences between majorities and minorities. A dose of polarization can be essential to life in a pluralistic society.

The intensity of the polarization differs depending on the issue and the influence of who spreads divisive messages. The polarization generated by the inauguration of the new metropolitan airport to serve Mexico City is not the same as the cleavage that the issue of abortion brings with it.

When polarization is mentioned in Mexico, it refers to different understandings of the term: new and old polarizations, healthy ones for civic debate, destructive ones, structural ones. There is also talk of polarization based on values, polarization produced by disinformation, and polarization both online and offline.

So, let’s specify that when we talk about the type of social distancing that affects the foundations of democratic coexistence in the country, we are talking about hyperpolarization. This is the severe polarization observed on social networks and digital platforms, and usually characterized by resentment, hate speech, post-truth, and incitement to violence.

With this type of anger, writes the Uruguayan economist and writer Luis Porto of the Organization of American States, “Politics is transformed not into a struggle of ideas but into a struggle of affections, of emotions of attraction and repulsion: them against us. The common collective identity is lost and identity polarization is produced.”

What is alarming about this phenomenon is that powerful actors or groups openly promote polarization, using it as a strategy to foster political interests, notably in electoral contexts.

Debating is acknowledging disagreement and respecting it, building on it, and finding communal ground instead of obsessing over dividing points. A democratic citizenship is made up of this material, a fabric that cannot be built by governments alone, nor by electoral institutions.

Take the train collision that occurred in the Mexico City Metro in January 2023, which resulted in the tragic loss of a human life, and dozens of people injured. Even when the evidence suggests failures in train and track maintenance as the cause of the accident, capital authorities spoke of “suspicions of malicious acts” and possible sabotage. Thus, they insinuated, without further foundation, that the accident was a deliberate attack to affect the image of the current head of government in Mexico City, who is considered a likely candidate for the Mexican presidency.

Immediately, officials announced the mobilization of 6,000 members of the National Guard to protect the Metro facilities, a measure widely questioned by many of the capital’s citizens. On social networks the issue took the form of a confrontation between supporters of the ruling party and its opponents, displacing discussions about the inefficiencies of the transportation system and the administration of justice for the victims. When the state becomes an active agent of polarization, it increases mistrust and makes it impossible to debate solutions in a meaningful way.

This type of polarization, which erodes democracy and promotes segregation, feeds on the competition between opposing versions of reality. In echo chambers, each person reinforces their beliefs, resorting to ad hoc data sources and information distorted by political-electoral competition.

In this context, we must ask ourselves how to increase the search for truth and reduce the need for chaos, hatred, and aggression that characterizes polarization. One possible path is to promote exercises in deliberative democracy, which make it possible to find points of agreement that can reinforce faith in democracy and in the peaceful solution of conflicts. A related path is to build creative spaces that bring together communities, youth, workers, and groups in vulnerable situations. When people in such spaces apply the logic of dialogue and search for solutions to specific challenges, often in local contexts, they become less polarized.

As the exercises of Professor James S. Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University, have shown, the mere exchange of ideas between people who think differently reduces animosity and can bring extreme positions closer together. America In One Room was one of such exercises of deliberation as a remedy to depolarize highly divided environments.

It is necessary to build bridges between the poles and encourage, not repress, those who discover through dialogue that people who do not think alike may have good reasons for it.

One of the great challenges of Mexican democracy is that citizens experience disagreement as enmity. Rivals are seen as voiceless opponents, who must be crushed along with their divergent ideas. Hence the importance of getting people to accept the need to coexist. On such a foundation, it should be possible to build basic understandings that allow us to talk about our challenges based on our common interests.

Debating is acknowledging disagreement and respecting it, building on it, and finding communal ground instead of obsessing over dividing points. A democratic citizenship is made up of this material, a fabric that cannot be built by governments alone, nor by electoral institutions. The participation of the educational system, companies, the media, and families is required. And that dialogue begins by promoting inclusive listening.

As former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has pointed out, it is important that people feel heard, even if the outcome of the process does not go their way in the end. That way we can overcome the divisive discourse that only benefits the interests of some.