Update 2: European Political Polarization

Well, I’m back!

6 days in Dublin, 7 in London, 6 in Paris, 6 days in Berlin, an extra day in Dublin (my flight was a round trip from Dublin), and the travelling is over.

During my trip, I met with 15 professors from Dublin City University, University College Dublin, King’s College London, Sciences Po, Humboldt University, and Free University of Berlin. With each of them, I talked about institutional and electoral causes of political polarization, but those conversations covered so much more than those topics.

First, a little context. By mostly luck, my trip was during one of the most interesting times in European politics in recent history. On the night I landed in London, the polls in the United Kingdom had just closed on a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union. I knew the referendum was coming up, but like most people, I assumed that “Remain” would win (even the night before, most “experts” were saying that Remain would win by a close margin). And then I woke up, and “Leave” had won, by a million votes.

The closest analogy I can think of is being a biologist and researching a mundane disease and finding it can lead to flesh-eating bacteria (I’m realizing now, that even my closest analogy is a horrible one). What I mean to say, is that the results of the referendum changed everything – they changed the substance, tone, and even importance of the research I was doing.

The biggest lesson: history matters. Specifically, the political history of each country, and the context it provides, is incredibly important in understanding the current state of polarization in each country. I say that because in this study, I have to compare the countries, and as much as I can talk about differences in electoral and political institutions, the unique history of each nation is an important factor to keep in mind.

I found Ireland to be an interesting country because following the 2016 elections, the government is a historic coalition between the two major parties. At the same time, this put my research in an interesting spot, because so much of the “political norms” and rules were changing. A part of the coalition involved reforming the Irish parliament. One of those reforms involves transition from the Prime Minister setting the parlimentary agenda, to the parliament setting its own agenda. One of my basic questions that I asked interviewees was, “who sets the agenda in the parliament?” Given the changes, most of my responses started with a “Well, this is how it used to work. For the future, who knows.” As interesting and exciting it is to feel so “in the moment” about political developments, I will have to make sure that my final paper takes note of how it was done before most of the reforms.

Another thing about Ireland that I found interesting was the role of a typical member of parliament in Ireland (TD). What I heard from a number of interviews is that their most important role is not in drafting legislation or expressing the views of their constituency, but instead in providing constituent services. What kind of services? The type of stuff where if you sent in application for a passport and you haven’t heard back, you would contact your TD for help (similar to how someone in the US might call their congressman). Generally, most people in Ireland can name their TD, often because they’ve gone to them for help. They are, some said, indispensable in getting anything government related done for the average citizen. Therefore, a very high percentage of people say they would vote for their TD, even if he/she switched parties (although, if that would actually happen is not clear). I found the role of TDs in Ireland to be very interesting, and unique from the role of members of parliament in other countries.

So what’s next? While I’ve done my interviews, now I have to make sure that it wasn’t for nothing. That is, over the next few weeks, I will be transcribing the hours of audio recordings I have from my meetings. After that I’ll go through and take some detailed notes and flags item of interest. And then, I’ll combine everything (likely along with a literature review) into a final research report for my project advisor. The fun part is over, but my research certainly isn’t!

In my next blog post, I hope to cover some interesting aspects of the UK, France, and Berlin!