Mobilization, Polarization, and Conversation: Lessons from Slovakia

Discourse across ideological lines could be the key to facilitating meaningful change.

*This article was originally written for PartnersGlobal in June 2019. It has been modified and updated for use in The Rights Stuff.*

June 12 | Last week, PartnersGlobal hosted Dušan Ondrušek of PDCS and Tom Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for a brief conversation on what the U.S. can learn from divided societies and citizen mobilization in Slovakia.  

Slovakia is a small country in central Europe bordered by Poland and Hungary, states which have recently seen significant right-wing and populist movements. 

To some degree, Slovakia has been influenced by its neighbors’ political trends—parliamentary elections in 2016 resulted in shrinking percentages of both center-left and center-right party representation and rising numbers of far-right politicians.

In other ways, Slovakia appears to be defying trends. 

Take Zuzana Čaputová, for example. A lawyer new to politics with significant activist experience, Čaputová was elected Slovakia’s first female president in March. Many are hopeful that she will bring a new culture to Slovakian politics.

Another factor offsetting regional trends is Slovakia’s civil society.  2018 protests led by young activists following the contracted killing of a Slovakian journalist saw significant success. Not only did protests force the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico, but they also catalyzed a movement characterized by large scale youth involvement and nonviolent mobilization. Some of these young grassroots leaders have successfully entered local politics.

Nevertheless, Slovakian society continues to polarize, and this polarization is not isolated. Similar trends of increasing polarization are also affecting other countries worldwide, including the U.S.

According to Mr. Carothers, polarization in divided societies emerges from the combination of identity values with political choices based on perceived or real attacks on identity. Polarization can paralyze the possibility of cooperation. 

To combat it, one can attempt to find ways to work with the other side, and or attempt to change the other side’s values. In Mr. Ondrušek’s and PDCS’s experience, the second option doesn’t decrease polarization.

Therefore, decreasing polarization means finding ways to work with the other side. This calls for conversation—a difficult task, according to Ondrušek, especially when considering how much to weigh perspectives like those from far-right officials, who increasingly echo fascist ideals from Europe’s past.   

People on the extremes are the most vocal, visible, and clear about what they aim to achieve. As a result, people in the middle prepared to reconcile and find common solutions are easily drowned out in polarized political noise. This is increasingly the case in both the U.S. and Slovakia, where strong populist political narratives surrounding similar political issues such as migration feed on hate and influence political parties and the level of fear in society.

PDCS, however, has seen success in finding ways to bring people with conflicting viewpoints into deliberative discussions.  The key lies not in creating platforms for people like neo-fascist elected officials to spread hate, but in engaging voters who elected these officials on specific issues and possible solutions. Most importantly, voters must be heard, as leaving them out of discussions means losing any possibility for change-making discourse.

The U.S. can learn some valuable lessons from PDCS’s work and Slovakia’s recent political events. A thriving, earnest, and issue-centered civil society can entrance a nation and lead to widespread mobilization. People running for office who are practical, trustworthy, and different can inspire diverse swaths of people.

Ondrušek and his team at PDCS recently completed a project called Peace Sofa intended to show the possibility of creating conversation on polarizing topics between people with radically different perspectives. Each person brought their own sofa, which carpenters sawed in half and joined with a different half from someone with a varying perspective. Then, sitting from the other person’s point of view, people conversed for an hour.

A carpenter isn’t always needed to get people to see from different perspectives it, but creativity is.

Conversation, a seemly simple concept, isn’t always easy to facilitate. Nor will conversation alone change politics. It can, however, open up the possibility for further dialogue and collaboration—a key step to achieving depolarization. Ondrušek summarized it well:

“It’s worthwhile to speak to people.”