Lessons from the Polarization of Politics

This past weekend Colombian citizens voted against the peace agreement that their government had negotiated for three years with the guerrilla group FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). After fifty-two years of civil war it seemed likely that Colombians had finally achieved a peaceful resolution to their internal conflict and that civil society would overwhelmingly come out and vote “yes for peace”. The result was surprisingly different and the “no for peace” vote came ahead by a margin of less then one percent (“yes” 49.78% vs. “no” 50.21%). This reminded me of this summer’s Brexit vote where the “leave” vote imposed itself over the “remain” vote in the U.K. referendum (“remain” 48.11% vs. “leave” 51.89%). Both electoral results reveal polarized regions where close to half of the population sees the glass half-full while the other sees the glass half-empty.

The same surprising scenarios seems to be taking shape in our presidential race, as two polarized views begin to tear apart the social, cultural, and political unity that has preserved our version of “democracy” under a traditional two-party system. The historic polarization of Colombia’s democracy should remind us about the dangers and repercussions of this socio-political phenomenon, if that were to be the path of our civil society after the presidential election in November. If anything, we should remind ourselves what happened in the 1860s when our ancestors came face to face with the realities of political polarization.

The polarization in Colombia dates back to the early stages of nation building when conservative isolationist and protectionist views came face to face with classical liberal views centered on free market principles. Multiple civil wars erupted throughout the nineteenth century as a result of this confrontation resulting in the breakup of the territorial dimensions of the nation state, including the loss of what is now known as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. Although relative political stability was achieved during the first half of the twentieth century, particularly in the urban centers, the weakness of the centralist state and the inability of both traditional political parties to integrate the masses into the democratic process resulted in class, race, and ethnic disenfranchisement that polarized civil society even more. This also discredited “democracy” as new generations of educated masses questioned the economic and political elite’s monopoly over the nation building process.

The rise to power under the liberal ticket of progressive populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in the 1930s was welcomed by the liberal elites that saw in the incorporation of the masses a democratic solution to outpace the conservatives. All those sectors that had been marginalized from the democratic process were empowered politically and took this opportunity seriously, building the momentum to catapult Gaitán to the leadership of the liberal party by the late 1940s.

His assured victory in the 1950 elections generated concerns among the liberal and conservative elites that did not want political power to slip from the hands of mainstream politics. The result was the escalation of political polarization this time between the working class and the elites. Gaitán, who coined the phrase “país politico y país nacional” (political nation and a national nation), defined polarization as the nation of the elites and the nation of the masses. This differentiation fueled even more political polarization among Gaitanistas but this came to an abrupt end with his assassination in 1948.

Gaitán’s assassination ignited the latest civil war from which the most recent peace agreement emerged. The popular classes blamed the assassination on the conservative elites and these responded by constructing a communist conspiracy behind the social revolt. This was the beginning of the civil war that gave birth to the guerrilla movements including FARC, whose members were initially displaced farmers persecuted by the military for their Gaitanista support.

Colombia became a divided society between leftist and right wing ideologies. Both ideological groups radicalized, resulting in the consolidation of leftist guerrillas and right wing paramilitary groups. As Cold War unfolded, guerrillas became the enemy of the state as nations like Colombia adopted the policies of containment advanced by the United States across the world, while the paramilitary forces became an instrument of the government in order to fight a non conventional war against the left inside Colombian territory.

A peace process in the 1980s resulted in FARC’s members reincorporation into civil society under the Union Patriótica (UP) political party, but the democratization of guerrillas did not last long, as the government once again implemented the use of paramilitary forces in order to systematically assassinate all the members of the UP, as it was recently admitted by President Juan Manuel Santos. FARC and other guerrilla groups returned to the Andes Mountains where the civil war regained its momentum.

The peace process that was just rejected by civil society has cost the lives of more than 300,000 Colombians and billions of dollars of potential economic growth and development. For the past 52 years the nation remained relatively isolated from the international system, under an environment of uncertainty and insecurity that kept away foreign investors and that impeded a multi billion dollar tourist industry from taking off.

Last week’s vote against the peace process in Colombia delays that nation’s full incorporation into the international system, resurfacing the insecurity and uncertainty that has impeded the nation from reaching its full potential. In this case political polarization results once more in the escalation of political, economic, and social damages that are irreparable and irreversible. It leads to irrationality that may be justified by the polarized actors themselves forcing international actors to intervene, which in turn results in the weakening of national sovereignty as the internal actors fail to resolve their own problems. Such was the case prior to the failed peace agreement, where over the years multilateral actors and foreign governments became the mediators of the conflict as its repercussions began to impact the international system, as in the case of narcotics trafficking and the systemic violation of human rights. Awarding President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize was just another way for the international system to correct the internal damage of polarization, as it imposes pressure on those who irrationally voted against peace.

The lesson here is that political polarization leads to long-term social, political, and economic instability that results in the loss of confidence of the international system. In the case of the United States this is even more concerning since we are the leaders of the international system, placing much greater responsibility on our democratic process and our electoral outcome. As we became the superpower of the world, all our presidents from the left and from the right have taken this responsibility seriously because the stability and credibility of capitalism and “democracy” rest on our internal social and economic stability, and our ability to effectively work within our political system. Up to now it seemed clear that our leaders understood that the preservation of our internal stability was the guarantee to keep our position of power within the international system, but now this is at risk with the present electoral realities. There is a status quo candidate and an instigator of polarization. It is crucial that the forces of polarization do not fulfill their objectives. Even more so in our present era of globalization where a polarized United States could lead the whole global economy into chaos and ultimately sacrificing our privileged position in the world. We cannot forget that the human and financial costs incurred in order to achieve our present position in the world were extremely high and it cannot be sacrificed over the polarized views of a few.

The political stability achieved by the mainstream bipartisan system since 1865 is now threatened by the radicalization of the right in the United States. Their candidate’s rhetoric of shifting the historic direction of our foreign policy, revising our long-term international trade strategy, shifting the direction of our progressive civil rights policies, and reversing our historic commitment to the preservation of human rights will inevitably lead to the polarization of our political system. This is a moment of junction in our political history and we therefore need to choose the right path. We cannot ask ourselves the day after the election the same questions that the British and Colombians asked themselves after their referendum votes.

Colombians still cannot comprehend why a majority of their constituents would vote against a peace agreement after 52 years of civil war and the British citizens still cannot understand why a majority of their citizens voted to leave the European Union after sacrificing hundreds of thousands of lives for the preservation and consolidation of Europe after World War One and World War Two. Our electoral outcome cannot replicate the irrationality of the Colombian and British experiences, instead we can show the world that the democratic process does in fact still lead to the best collective outcome. We cannot allow a few to polarize our system and destroy the pillars that have lead this nation to a position of power and influence in the world. We cannot be irresponsible and jeopardize the stability of the international system and that of our own internal socio-economic system.



Stefano Tijerina

About Stefano Tijerina

My name is Stefano Tijerina and this blog’s objective is to connect Maine’s social, environmental, economic, cultural, and political issues to the global system, centering on how the local impacts the global and how the global impacts the local or what is known in Global Studies as the "Glocal" effect. In our present era of globalization it is crucial for the general public to understand how the new dynamics of the international system impact our lives here in Maine and how our local decisions impact the earth. These are my personal views, and they do not express those of the University of Maine System or the University of Maine.