Final Update: European Political Polarization

As I put my final touches on my research report, I want to pause and trace the route it took to here. Summer of 2015, I participated in the William & Mary DC Summer Institute Program, where I took a course focused on American political polarization taught by Professor Rapaport.  Since then, I have phenomenon of political polarization fascinating. While it is impossible to definitely answer these questions, I wanted to know what were the causes of political polarization, and why does it occur in some places but not others?

In the Spring of 2016, I used survey data from the European Values Survey to begin to look at public opinion polarization. Specifically, I looked at correlations between people saying certain issues were unjustifiable (let’s say, abortion) and people saying a separate issue was also unjustifiable (let’s say, homosexuality). The purpose of this project was to see if people who said abortion was unjustifiable would also say that homosexuality was unjustifiable. Higher correlation coefficients would indicate that views on these issues were more clustered, meaning that people are more polarized.

As I worked on this project, I found that, yes, some countries were more polarized than others. However, my survey questions weren’t perfect. I wanted to see if the results from this quantitative study on issue pairs would align with the results from a qualitative study. Specifically, I wanted attitudes and opinions of elites and what they thought.

Thanks to this grant, I was given that opportunity and to explore Europe at such an interesting time in its political history. From the parliamentary reforms in Ireland to the referendum in the UK, to the upcoming elections in France and Germany, there is a time of political unrest and I was given an opportunity to capture all that.

I’ll avoid going into the nitty-gritty, but I generally found that there is a polarization effect being observed in all four countries. Institutional factors help prevent polarization, such as the strong federal system in Germany forcing the “ruling” party to compromise in the other chamber. France’s 2002 change of election cycles (which set Presidential and Legislative elections very close to one another) prevented gridlock but also increased polarization.

One of the most interesting results of my project was getting to see the emerging theory of Globalization playing the leading role in causing all this polarization. The “losers” of globalization, it is theorized, are voting for the populist right-wing candidates that are surging in the polls across Europe (and the US as well). Certain institutional designs have done better jobs of holding these right-wing parties back, but none have eliminated their emergence.

To be honest, did I get an answer to all of my questions? No. The “Leave” campaign winning the UK referendum drastically changed the nature and tone of my interviews, as I ended up focusing much more on right-wing populist parties and the role they are playing. But in my larger goal of studying European Political Polarization, I classify this project as a success. The globalization theory of polarization is understudied, and I am thankful for having the opportunity to contribute to a rapidly growing field of research around it.


  1. Sahil, awesome job! I really enjoyed following your progress and believe this research is incredibly relevant. I’d be interested to hear what you expect for the future of American political polarization. Could this election force a breaking point where reconciliation isn’t only needed, but welcomed? I think your approach at analyzing four was a good one, I’d be interested if you found any connections between political polarization and media. I know in American politics there’s clear political markings attached to certain media outlets, but I’d be curious if polarization in France is enhanced by definitively left and right wing news outlets. There’s almost an element of psychology to this. Great job!

  2. michaeltesta says:


    I studied abroad in Austria last semester and tried to keep up with European politics while I was there so this post caught my attention. This research is very relevant in light of recent events and global trends. I am not surprised that you found polarizing effects in the countries that you studied based on my experience. I don’t believe you mentioned it, but I remember immigration being a very controversial issue at the time and fueled the growth of many right-wing parties including in Austria. However, I’m sure many other issues were at play too. I would be interested to see how the issues were clustered together based on your correlation matrices and how they compared across countries.

    If you conduct any future research, I think it would be very interesting to compare political polarization among different government institutions, such as parliamentary vs. presidential institutions. I imagine that there might be less polarization when more parties are represented as in a parliamentary system. Additionally, comparing levels of demographic homogeneity in the population to polarization on immigration and religious issues may yield some interesting results.

    Anyway, good luck with the rest of your research (or future research)! I think it’s highly relevant and insightful.