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When Voters Become Fans

Today’s deepening political polarization calls into question longstanding assumptions about how electoral politics works. Far from exhibiting hardwired preferences and ambitions, many voters seem to be more like ardent World Cup spectators, viewing victory over the other side as an end in itself.

ITHACA – The state of global politics has economists, political scientists, and political philosophers floundering. We are witnessing a level of polarization rarely seen. From Turkey, Brazil, and the Philippines to Sri Lanka, India, and the United States, the center has not held, because people have either veered left or clustered around figures on the far right.

In authoritarian countries, such as North Korea and China, one usually cannot see authentic public expression of political demands. Yet the politics are still there, and they can become apparent during periods of severe strain, as is happening with the widespread backlash in China against the government’s zero-COVID policy. Such moments suggest that the opposition is much larger than it may have seemed.

In any case, political polarization tends to nurture authoritarianism and empower self-aggrandizing demagogues who are skilled at rallying their followers behind hyper-nationalist causes. We have seen this dynamic play out to tragic effect with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine, and with the crackdown on minorities in Myanmar by the military junta.

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