Polarization has become a buzzword of our times. It is often associated with populism and appears as an integral part of “the global crisis of democracy.” Observers attribute deep democratic pathologies, such as political deadlock and the end of public deliberation, to political polarization.

In political science, polarization is often defined either as a simple divergence of policy positions among political camps (“ideological polarization”) or as deep emotional dislike between them (“affective polarization”). In the seminar, by contrast, we will focus on its democratic dimension, which is, the destruction of basic democratic trust among political adversaries.

In democratic equilibria, political adversaries view each other as reliable democrats who play by the rules of the democratic game. In contexts of polarization, they describe each other as “enemies of democracy” who are willing to transgress basic democratic norms for the sake of personal or partisan gain. These descriptions may be groundless or realistic. They may be frivolous attempts to destroy the democratic credentials of others or appropriate responses to real norm transgressions. Herein lies the ambiguity of “polarization.” In any case, though, it is more than intense bipolar conflict. It is a situation of democratic crisis.

Based on my own work in progress, a book manuscript on political polarization, we will walk through the fundamental building blocks of this (rather complex) argument: the notion of basic democratic trust, the nature of democratic equilibria, the conception of polarization as destruction of basic democratic trust, the role of populism, the nature of democratic disequilibria, and the repertoire of “depolarizing” counterstrategies.

Arguably, the perception, description, and treatment of adversaries as enemies (rather than legitimate adversaries) constitutes a defining trait of political polarization. Each participant will be selecting an empirical case of polarization to study its “enemographic” aspect, that is, the various ways in which antagonistic camps describe each as intolerable enemies who threaten vital interests or fundamental values (political enemies), or destroy the foundations of democratic coexistence (democratic enemies).

Overall, the seminar should enable participants to understand the basic logics of political polarization and to analyze the extant literature on polarization as well as existing realities of polarization in clear and critical manner. In addition, the various activities and tasks the seminar involves intends to strengthen a variety of skills, such as critical reading, analytic thinking, public presentation, collective deliberation, and academic writing.