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SDG Library - Grand challenge: Political Polarization Module

Content produced by Hanken School of Economics

Module: Growing political polarization between urban centres and peripheries in terms of sustainability

Introduction to political polarization in terms of sustainability

Within the Global North, the highly developed urban centres tend to vote for ‘liberals’, who often call for policies that are increasingly framed as ‘green’. Meanwhile, the (often rural or semi-rural) areas that have become increasingly marginalized as a result of globalization tend to vote comparatively more for so-called ‘populists’, sometimes labelled ‘illiberal’. The use of the term illiberal is loaded and often meant to disqualify these views, as it refers to a radical rejection of the values of liberalism, which the mainstream media typically portray as universally desirable. In line with this electoral trend, those sustainability policies driven by the parties that are successful in the urban centres (for example higher taxes on fossil fuels) tend not to be accepted in the marginalized peripheries. This has led to political crises in many countries, with various forms of (often far-right) populism on the rise. Some of these populist leaders and/or groups explicitly reject sustainability policies and have made this rejection a key strategic move, as in the example of the ‘True Finns’ party in Finland. In some countries, new large-scale social movements have emerged as a reaction to carbon policies, as in the example of the ‘Yellow Vests’ in France. Beyond the threat to democracy that many see these populist movements leading to, there is potentially a serious threat to the belated sustainability efforts (notably in relation to global heating) which are needed to keep the planet as liveable as possible.

SDG 13 Climate Action is the most obvious link here, but in the case of far-right populist movements seeing themselves as an antithesis of green and/or liberal parties that appeal to metropolitan populations, many other SDGs can be affected by their approach to politics. Their rejection of contemporary policies on civil rights of minorities and climate action may for example have negative impacts from the perspective of SDGs 4 Quality Education and 5 Gender Equality. However, what makes this challenge particularly difficult to address is that liberal policies have historically led to the marginalization of the peripheries, and populist movements often rise due to a demand for reducing inequalities (SDG 10). From this perspective, mainstream sustainability policies are often perceived as unfair, disproportionately affecting communities that are already struggling and increasingly marginalized.

Podcast: Political polarization of Sustainability


Quiz (multiple choice)

Group Discussion