Why would President Trump’s hardcore defenders think that the best way to defend a floundering leader is to hurl repulsive dual-loyalty charges at a decorated Army combat veteran who feels an obligation to tell the truth to Congress?
Why would British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gamble on forcing an election in Britain at a time when his Conservative Party is under 40 percent in the polls?
And why are German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats and her coalition partners, the center-left Social Democrats, suffering electoral losses even though a large majority of the country wants her to serve out her term through 2021?
The standard answer to such questions focuses on political polarization, and there sure is a lot of it going around: left versus right, urban versus rural, religious versus secular, young versus old, prosperous versus left-behind, pro-immigrant versus anti-immigrant.
Polarization is deepened because many of these identities reinforce each other these days. To pick just one example underscored by recent studies from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Pew Research Center: Christian conservatives rally to the Republican Party while the secular are overwhelmingly Democrats. Partisans don’t just disagree about politics. They are divided by some of the most fundamental questions about human existence.
But another factor that we talk about far less is feeding the chaos: fragmentation. If some identities are mutually reinforcing, we have other commitments that split us into ever smaller groups. This feeds a tendency toward niche politics, visible in all the democratic nations. Taken together, polarization and niche politics make it very hard to forge the consensus required to solve problems and move democracies forward.