Working Paper
Secession and social polarization

Evidence from Catalonia

Does secessionism lead to social polarization? Despite much research on independence movements, their relationship to polarization, a key mechanism theorized as increasing the chances of violent conflict, remains less understood.

We argue that secessionist conflicts can polarize along both policy and ethnic group lines even when they take the form of non-violent disputes. However, polarization does not necessarily lead to violence. We explore the case of Catalonia, a region that experienced a deep secessionist crisis in the last months of 2017, using novel data from a panel survey fielded across two key time periods and embedded experiments.

We find a society with great levels of affective polarization in that pro- and anti-independence advocates have strong negative views of one another. In addition, there is spillover in terms of the assessment of associated language groups. However, there is a group of moderates in between the two policy poles that limit the extent of this polarization. Contrary to common wisdom, these moderates have very stable preferences.

Our results contribute to the understanding of the underexplored polarization dynamics of secessionist movements, particularly in places where high-intensity violence (i.e. terrorism, civil war) has not yet occurred.