PNC polarising Guyana

In his 2021 book “Sustaining Democracy”, which was published by Oxford University Press, political scientist Robert B. Talisse points out the dangers in the increased polarisation that is sweeping the world. In Guyana, we have been a polarised society since agitating for independence when the nationalist, unifying PPP was split by Forbes Burnham in 1955.
In an article discussing his research and book, Talisse says, “There are two types of polarization. One isn’t inherently dangerous; the other can be. And together, they can be extremely destructive of democratic societies. Political polarization is the ideological distance between opposed parties. If the differences are large, it can produce logjams, standoffs, and inflexibility in (governmental institutions at all levels). Though it can be frustrating, political polarization is not necessarily dysfunctional. It even can be beneficial, offering true choices for voters and policymakers alike. Deep-seated disagreement can be healthy for democracy, after all. The clash of opinions can help us find the truth. The clamour of ideological differences among political parties provides citizens with shortcuts for making political choices.”
But he then honed in on the polarisation that we have been afflicted within Guyana after the PNC’s 1955-57 split of the PPP – ethnic polarisation – as a subset of what he calls “belief polarization”, which also includes polarisation along religious and racial cleavages. “Belief polarization, also called group polarization, is different. Interaction with like-minded others transforms people into more extreme versions of themselves. These more extreme selves are also overly confident and therefore more prepared to engage in risky behaviour.
“Belief polarization also leads people to embrace more intensely negative feelings toward people with different views. As they shift toward extremism, they come to define themselves and others primarily in terms of partisanship. Eventually, politics expands beyond policy ideas and into entire lifestyles. But that’s not all. Society sorts into (what are essentially different and sharply demarcated) lifestyles, people grow more invested in policing the borders between “us” and “them.” And as people’s alliances focus on hostility toward those who disagree, they become more conformist and intolerant of differences among allies. People grow less able to navigate disagreement, eventually developing into citizens who believe that democracy is possible only when everyone agrees with them. That is a profoundly anti-democratic stance.”
And it is this anti-democratic stance the PNC adopted ever since David Granger was parachuted into its leadership and acceded to office in 2015. Ironically, this jaundiced view of “democracy “not only intensified our national polarization, but Granger’s style and substance revealed the contradictions with its coalition partner, the AFC, which had garnered support from the “them” of the PNC – Indian-Guyanese. The PNC-as-APNU inevitably lost power, after which the PNC elected a new leader and executive. But in the campaign to oust Granger, rather than attempting to bridge the divisions, there was further entrenchment of our national polarisation to garner support in the PNC’s antiethnic base.
As Talisse had warned, “As politicians escalate their rifts, citizens are cued to entrench partisan segregation. This produces additional belief polarization, which in turn rewards political intransigence. All the while, constructive political processes get submerged in the merely symbolic and tribal, while people’s capacities for responsible democratic citizenship erode.”
We thus saw under the new PNC leadership the refusal to adhere to democratic norms, and accept that as the constitutional, official opposition, their MPs were supposed to debate and offer their views on the NRF Bill. Instead, they invaded the Government benches, assaulted the Finance Minister in an attempt to prevent him from speaking, and most egregiously seized the Mace, the symbol of the Speaker’s authority.
What can be done? Talisse recommends: “The response to polarization cannot (just) involve calls for unanimity or abandoning partisan rivalries. A democracy without political divides is no democracy at all. The task is to render people’s political differences more civil, to reestablish the ability to respectfully disagree.”
Can the new PNC leader commit to this civility?