Aha Moment

Developing a Research Question: Political Polarization in Europe

What on Earth is going on? While my official research project was about the roots and causes of polarization in Europe, it’s best summarized by this overarching question. Following American politics, I had noticed that in the last few years, anecdotally, the country had become more divided. Watching the 2016 Presidential primary season, it felt like the two parties were at completely opposite ends of the spectrum.

I knew that the data already somewhat supported this belief. In the Summer of 2015, I took a two-week summer course titled “Polarization and the Electorate” in Washington, D.C. I learned about how intensely polarized the United States had become in the last 10 years. I specifically remember reading about a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center that quantified polarization among the American public. They found that Democrats and Republicans were much more ideologically divided than in the 1990s. The course involved meeting with many different people related to politics (academics, fundraisers, legislators, interest groups), to discuss political polarization in the United States and its causes.

I learned a lot about the role polarization played in the United States, and people pointed to various causes, including the media, the growth of money in politics, and demographic changes. Towards the end of 2015, another news story caught my attention. The United Kingdom’s Conservative Party fulfilled one of their campaign promises if elected: they passed a law to establish a referendum on membership in the European Union. I found that much of the rhetoric behind the “Leave” campaign mirrored what I saw in the United States. A common refrain behind the campaign was to stop immigration and focus on the UK instead. If you replace “UK” with “US,” you have Donald Trump’s campaign. In France, the “National Front” party and in Germany the “Alternative for Germany” were also movements in their nations that almost exactly mirrored this rhetoric.

This moment of realization, that these movements are so similar, is what prompted my research question. While many people pointed to many different factors in the United States, I wondered if there was a common theme among the European countries, since each nation had different media environments, campaign finance laws, and demographic trends. Additionally, I noticed that while there were similar movements in all the countries, they encountered different levels of political success. During my studies in the US, some people pointed to the “first past the post” electoral system as a cause for polarization. I wondered if the different electoral systems were the reasons that polarization was controlled in some of these countries.

Looking back, I realize that “intense confusion” is probably not the best way to describe how I came to my research question, but in some ways, it truly was – I was intensely confused by how politics around the world were changing so rapidly. Thanks to a research grant from the Charles Center, I had the opportunity to go to Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to explore political polarization in Europe. My focus was on exploring the cause of polarization and which institutional factors controlled or enabled the polarization.

I think it goes to show how just following the news and reading more about what you find interesting can help provide some great research questions and lead to projects you never knew you would be doing!