In political science, polarisation refers to a state or process of hardened differences of opinion that are based on perceived or actual inequalities (, 693). In pluralistic societies, conflicts are immanent. The purpose of democracies is not to cover up existing conflicts, but to discuss them constructively and transparently. In this respect, a certain degree of polarisation is not only normal but necessary in democracies. However, the challenge is to prevent polarised conflicts from sliding into violent confrontation where dialogue comes at its end. There are a number of theories that explain political polarisation processes. The theory of pluralism assumes that different worldviews and political interests are normatively legitimate and are to be negotiated in a model of democratic governance. To this end, Richard Bellamy has described four constitutional forms, which in turn are based on different political theory models . Constitutional neutrality means that compromise is achieved by trimming and that the constitution is neutral towards world views. “Contentious opinions can still be expressed, but only in private arenas such as pubs and clubs or with friends and family” (, 202). “Interest Group Pluralism or compromise by trading” is about the balancing of interests between relevant social and political groups. “…[W]hen conflicts occur, groups will always be able to force and reach mutually beneficial trade-offs with others” (ibid 2000, 204). We know this from collective bargaining between workers and employers in a social partnership context. In the model “Compromise by Segregation”, power sharing among different groups is considered to be the best approach. It is all about the rights of groups and the group’s control of questions in their vital interests. “They seek to preserve a group’s control of as many areas vital to its form of life as possible, to protect other aspects against damaging incursions and to ensure the necessary collective decisions are consensual.” (ibid. 2000, 106 f.). The problem with this model is that it can lead to a hardening of group identity and thus to polarisation. That is why the fourth constitutional model described by Bellamy—“Compromise as Negotiation”—seems to be more suitable for the mitigation of polarisation than consociationalism since it acknowledges pluralism and focusses on dialogue. “The key disposition to foster is encapsulated in the republican formula ‘audi alteram partem’ or ‘hear the other side’. This criterion constrains both the procedures and the outcomes of the political process. People must drop purely self-referential or self-interested reasoning and look for considerations others can find compelling, thereby ruling out arguments that fail to treat all of equal moral worth. They must strive to accommodate the clashes of preferences and principles associated with pluralism by seeking integrative compromises that view the concerns raised by others as matters to be met rather than constraints to be overcome through minimal, tactical concessions” (ibid. 2000, 211 f.). This negotiation-based approach fits with a theory of democracy based on dialogue, deliberation and participation which in recent decades has been strongly associated with Jürgen Habermas . Although Bellamy and Castiglione have discussed and criticised Habermas’ theory of constitutional patriotism elsewhere , they share the general idea that democracy must be based on dialogue and the inclusion of the other . Later in this article, elements of Habermas’ discourse theory are taken up again.
In any case, dealing with conflict is essentially one of the central questions of democratic theory. This seems particularly true for the twenty-first century . And this this dealing with conflicts depends on normative positions, which are themselves subject of polarisation. One aspect of social division is the exaggeration or abridgement of theoretical concepts and often their deliberate misuse. We have been experiencing this for some years around the concepts of communitarianism and cosmopolitanism. Both stem from a multifaceted philosophical debate. Bellamy and Castiglione argue that they are ontological rather than ideological (, 187). However, in times of polarisation, they are misused by political parties as absolute truths and models of exclusion.
Communitarian approaches assume a common cultural core that holds societies together and that should not be disturbed too much [18, 60, 61]. For a long time, this idea was advocated by thinkers of the left who used it to defend welfare state achievements against neoliberal globalisation. For some years now, nationalists have been using the core augmentation of communitarianism without calling it by its name. They plead for a retreat to the national and thus undermine the philosophical concept with their racist, ethnicist and authoritarian world views .
Cosmopolitan assumptions assume the possibility of universal democracy and a negotiation process that can be described with Juergen Habermas  as procedural rationality which does not presuppose any cultural preconditions. The philosophical and political theoretical definitions of cosmopolitanism [2, 4, 44] are almost always based on an inclusive conception of the world, universalist ideas in which all people are granted equal rights. In recent years, cosmopolitanism is also closely linked to ecological questions . But despite the claim of global solidarity and equality among political thinkers of cosmopolitanism, political actors who represent cosmopolitan ideas in the political party spectre or in civil society and NGOs sometimes ignore socio-economic conditions of poorer milieus and underestimate achievements of nation state democracy . This can drive polarisation and de facto exclude certain groups from political discourse .
In terms of political theory, one could argue that the two schools of thought serve different human needs: communitarians prioritise belonging to a nation or a political entity, while cosmopolitans prioritise equal freedom for all people [20, 48]. In this article, the distinction does not stand for all political-theoretical facets of the two schools of thought. Rather, they describe the misuse in the political debate that is based on fundamental orientations and worldviews. That is why I will use the terms exclusive communitarianism and dogmatic cosmopolitanism to avoid confusing the practical aberrations with the differentiated theoretical concepts.
For Wolfgang Merkel, this new line of conflict is emerging as a growing cleavage between winners and losers of globalisation. While the former are mostly well educated and wealthy, the latter suffer from the risks of globalisation because they have less capital and resources and are less represented in the political system. For Merkel, this gap of representation is exploited by the far right and drives polarisation (, 9). But some dogmatic cosmopolitans in the public debate also contribute to polarisation by discrediting others, by politicising lifestyle issues offensively and sometimes without regard to socio-economic conditions of poorer milieus (, Sandel). They underestimate the achievements of the nation states in terms of democratic quality and think that democracy is easily transferable to a supranational or even global level (Merkel). People who are formally less educated, less wealthy and who are threatened by globalisation effects sometimes perceive the politicisation of life styles as a kind of cosmopolitan arrogance  or lifestyle arrogance . The polarisation is based on a factual and increasing inequality that has been observed for a long time and has been empirically documented in many ways [27, 50, 58].
In this article, I draw on Merkel’s argumentation that globalisation is a key factor for polarisation between cosmopolitan and communitarian positions on democracy and Europe. But I assume that it is not only a question of winners and losers of globalisation that determines whether people tend to lean one way or the other. Rather, in a dialectical understanding of the world, different needs are opposed to each other, which are ideally represented by the two . Communitarians tend to serve the need for belonging and security, while cosmopolitanism is more oriented towards individual freedom and universal solidarity.
With reference to the theories of democracy as rebellion  and a relative or rebellious cosmopolitanism , I assume that individuals and societies are torn between two needs: that of freedom and that of belonging. Polarisation processes reflect this existential contradiction, as can be seen in the struggle between communitarianism and cosmopolitanism. If the balance between the two needs falters in a political system, which can happen quickly due to crises and a lack of political equality, polarisation occurs. The dialectical resolution of the conflict is offered by the theoretical concept of relative or rebellious cosmopolitanism that can build bridges between communitarians and cosmopolitans and foster political equality and by the practical strengthening of democracy and dialogue.
As I argued elsewhere, democracy as rebellion means that the individual rebellion against authoritarianism and inequality is rooted in an immediate existential experience and expresses itself as universal solidarity between strangers [12, 48]. This cosmopolitanism is not based on the hybris of being a winner. It is not a theoretical or economic cosmopolitanism, but a rooted cosmopolitanism [4, 59]. Patrick Hayden defined what he calls “rebellious cosmopolitanism” as follows: “…the idea of cosmopolitanism should be situated in a post-foundationalist and post-teleological nexus to prevent it becoming a new political ideology of immutable truth… cosmopolitanism must strive against the injustices of a deeply divided world, yet at the same time accept theoretical, factual, and moral limits on its vision and actions.” (, 194). I suggest to call this kind of cosmopolitanism relative cosmopolitanism, in the sense of a relative utopia, as Albert Camus understood it (, 52).
The political polarisation that we observe in recent years, is linked to various factors of political equality , including representation, participation, transparency, but is also a dialectical relationship between contradictory needs for freedom and belonging, to which cosmopolitanism and communitarianism correspond at the political level. A balance between these needs requires a non-dogmatic relative cosmopolitanism that is based on real life experiences and competences of democracy, dialogue and citizenship education.
Basis characteristics of polarisation
In a complex world where there are no simple explanations, the risk of polarisation increases. Unequal power relations, socio-economic inequality, structural marginalisation, discrimination or exclusion of certain groups can drive its pernicious forms. The polarisation we encounter today thus has an existential basis, the contradiction between the need for freedom and that for belonging.
Four features characterise polarisation processes .
* Discrepancy of opinions: Two clearly identifiable and profiled opinions oppose each other. These opinions are not compatible and configure themselves in an either/or relationship. The communitarians aim at a narrower concept of belonging, the cosmopolitans at a broad understanding in which individual freedom and solidarity are thought globally and universally.
* Group formation: The two opinions are held by two different groups whose members are aware of the discrepancy and feel they belong to one of the two groups. The world is divided into “Us versus Them” . Political opponents are increasingly becoming antagonists  or even enemies. Carl Schmitt’s friend-enemy scheme has recently received greater attention again [40, 56]. In political science, the term “affective polarisation” refers to the mutual dislike of the groups (cf. ). What is necessary is the awareness that one’s own opinion is one pole in a spectrum that can contain many opinions and that one’s position is represented by a group that is visible in some way. Often these groups give themselves a name, or names are attributed to them. With regard to positioning on the EU, we know the attributions as pro- and anti-Europeans or Eurosceptics. With regard to positioning on democracy, it is mainly a distinction between representative and direct democratic elements.
* Purism: Relative positions are not considered by the two groups. A conciliatory position is rejected. The groups that form the poles in a polarisation process cannot take a middle position because their opinions are too far apart. A drastic example can illustrate this: opponents of the death penalty cannot negotiate about the death penalty. Their position is non-negotiable. The same is true for human rights activists. The historical fighters for democracy could not negotiate their goal with those who wanted to preserve their authoritarian power. Someone fighting for women’s rights cannot soften or weaken the goal of equality. Conversely, authoritarian forces that oppose emancipation do not give an inch. The positions at the poles are therefore fundamentally non-negotiable for the representatives of these poles. This is also true in the case of the polarisation around Europe. Those who advocate a European republic will not discuss the possibility of renationalisation. The reverse is also true.
* Political struggle: The fourth characteristic to be mentioned is that a political struggle for positions must be waged in order to speak of polarisation. The mere existence of major differences of opinion is not per se politically relevant, because it would also be conceivable that one of the groups or even both simply exist in silence without engaging in a political struggle. Only when there is a dispute in public can we talk about polarisation.
However, polarisation processes are not to be regarded as dangerous or endangering democracy per se. To a certain extent, they are part of pluralistic societies. Historically, polarisation processes have even often been a precondition for social change towards more democracy. Polarisation often starts from below and develops bottom-up. When social movements recognise a lack of justice or opportunities for themselves or other groups and fight against it, a hardening of positions is to be expected at first, as the dominant or privileged groups feel threatened and may reject the demands. Only when the pressure of the social movement becomes so strong that it leads to a concession can polarisation develop towards democratisation. For this to happen, the polarisation process must be turned around positively through dialogue and inclusion (cf. , 234).
In contrast, a more dangerous form of polarisation develops as an ever sharper intensification of positions in the broad social centre, which can ultimately lead to a willingness to use violence. In such a case, the political differences of opinion lead to strong distrust and hardening and spread relatively quickly among the supporters of the respective side, far into the centre of society. Polarisation leads to social division and the end of dialogue. It is often driven and deliberately fuelled by populist politicians. “Whoever is not for me is against me” is the pointed formula that describes this phenomenon. The use of media plays an important role in this. Media power is therefore of utmost importance in polarisation processes. Communication methods that contradict the dialogue principle and are based on monologues are typically used by divisive politicians.
Two paths can be taken in polarisation processes. The increase in polarisation can lead to a hardening of positions and tear the centre apart. The consequence is that dialogue ends, the desire to destroy and eliminate opponents grows and ultimately violence is used. This process is called pernicious or undemocratic polarisation. The other way polarisation can go is the constructive turn, in which the division is resolved through dialogue. This can be called benign or democratic polarisation . The progression of polarisation depends on the development of structural, socio-economic and political inequalities, on experiences of democracy and on offers of dialogue. The actors of polarisation are divided into pushers and followers who have an interest in division, seek scapegoats and use manipulative communication techniques. In contrast, the so-called bridge builders can counteract this by promoting democracy and dialogue at various political levels .
Polarisation and the end of the democratic consensus
The democratic consensus of the post-war period was based on the conviction that democracy was the only form of government that is acceptable. This consensus was upheld in the political party landscape of Western Europe and, after 1989, largely in Eastern Europe as well. Although there were very different ideas and forms of democratic systems in detail, from a semi-presidential French democracy to a parliamentary form in many other states and further gradations, the basic idea of representative democracy was not in question. This changed in the 1990s and finally reached its peak in the last years. Although there is still a very high percentage of people favouring democracy over all other forms of government in opinion surveys, there is a lot of evidence for a consequent, subversive decline of approval for democracy if we look at other indicators. Not only is the number of parties questioning the democratic consensus increasingly , but the desire for a strong leader who does not need to care about parliament or election is also growing . Satisfaction with, trust in and approval of representative democracy and its actors are also declining. Thus, all these factors are eroding the democratic consensus. This mood, a rising inequality and a general uncertainty related to the phenomena of individualisation, but also to concrete, existential experiences of crisis, promote politicisation and polarisation . Authoritarian populists, pushers of polarisation use this for their own goals. With manipulative communication, hate speech and the spreading of fake news , they try to further divide society.
Trust in representative democracy is declining not only among losers of globalisation, but among different groups. For exclusive communitarians and nationalists, it is losing its core and dissolving too much in a global world with phenomena like immigration and a questioning of identity; for the other side, it is still too strongly tied to cultural and national identities and structures to develop beyond the nation state. The proposed solutions are as different as the starting points. Exclusive communitarian positions aim at a return to national, sometimes even regional sovereignty. Cosmopolitan positions call for the overcoming of national states, for supranational and global forms of democracy.
Polarisation and the end of the European consensus
The second basic consensus of the post-war period, which has been wavering in Europe for several decades now, is the European consensus. Although there were always some opponents to the European integration project, they were largely marginal until well into the 1990s . That there was a consensus on the basic idea of unification despite all the differences between intergovernmental and federal conceptions of Europe can be shown by the positions of the governing parties, at least in continental Europe, throughout the second half of the twentieth century . From a democratic perspective, this broad elite consensus, also known as permissive consensus, has always been a problem for it was accompanied by the absence of democratic negotiation processes in a European public sphere [30, 46].
Only with the entry of the FPÖ into a government in Austria in 2000 was this tradition broken, when for the first time an openly anti-European or at least very Eurosceptic party assumed government responsibility. The reactions from other EU countries were very negative at the time. In particular, French President Chirac and German Chancellor Schröder criticised the Austrian People’s Party for entering into a coalition with the right-wing populists. These two politicians not only represented the leading countries in the EU, but also the two big party families, conservatives and social democrats who at that time were already under pressure by the rise of the far right .
Today, we know that this was only the beginning of a general European development in which Eurosceptic to anti-European parties came to power in many countries. Italy, the Netherlands, Finland, Belgium and others have since had similar coalitions with right-wing populist or far-right participation. In Hungary and Poland, governments have been established that question basic values of the Union and democracy. The British even decided to leave the EU. All this underlines the fact that the post-war European consensus no longer holds up unchallenged. Europe and its future have become the subject of polarised debates. Again, communitarian and cosmopolitan positions confront each other. Communitarians aim for a return to the nation state. They argue for the dissolution of the EU or the withdrawal of their countries, or at least for renationalisation to restore the full sovereignty of all member states. This would be tantamount to an end of the Union. The cosmopolitans, on the other hand, see the EU as the first step towards overcoming national egoisms and want a federal union that is committed to cosmopolitan values both internally and on the international stage