But the truth may be that it’s even worse than we think, and that polarization doesn’t exactly capture the partisan rancor we see on our screens.
According to a new paper, the term that best describes our conflict is “political sectarianism,” or the tendency of political groups to align themselves based on moral identities rather than shared ideas or policy preferences.
The authors of the newspaper include Eli Finkelprofessor of management and organizations at Kellogg, Cynthia Wangclinical professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, James Druckman and Mary McGrathboth professors of political science at Northwestern, as well as eleven others from a range of disciplines.
“It’s not just that people only trust or connect with their own side,” says Wang, who directs the Center. “It’s that they despise the other side, which they see as ‘other’ and less moral – an existential threat. This increase in out-group hatred is what we find so disturbing.”
Some might call this “tribalism”. But tribalism is based on the metaphor of kinship. In the authors’ view, a better metaphor might be the almost schismatic differences that have historically divided religious sects such as Sunnis from Shiites or Protestants from Catholics. Hence the term “sectarianism”.
The point is not that the beliefs of Democrats or Republicans are rooted in religion, but rather that political identity in America today functions as if it were a religious identity. “The people on the other side are not just wrong. they are bad. People on our side who are not pure enough are apostates,” says Finkel.
This general idea emerged from a body of research spanning multiple disciplines, contexts, and constructs—each with its own emphases and findings.
“In a real sense, polarization is not the problem,” says Finkel. “Clear, well-articulated differences between political parties are a good thing. The problem is that Americans have grown to hate partisan rivals based more on a religious-like social identity than on real disagreements about policies.”
Political Sectarianism: A ‘Poisonous Cocktail’
Political sectarianism, according to the researchers, has three main components. The first is “othering,” or the tendency to see one’s opponents as fundamentally different or foreign from oneself. The second, “aversion,” involves intense dislike and distrust of that other. The third is “moralization,” or the perception that one’s political opponents are evil or even criminal.
“It’s the combination of all three that makes political sectarianism so corrosive,” says Wang. “Each on its own has adverse effects, but it is the combination of all three that creates the poisonous cocktail of political sectarianism.”
For example, two partisans with opposing ideologies could still resolve their policy differences through compromise or persuasion, given a basis of trust. But if each sees the other as a moral threat, it’s a different game. “Now it’s zero,” says Wang, where compromise feels like apostasy.
Divisiveness in American politics is certainly nothing new – nor is it always a bad thing. A healthy democracy requires a regular contest of ideas, and bipartisanship can sometimes mask deep social inequalities. In the 1870s, for example, political compromises excluded women and racial minorities. In 1950 some political scientists worried that the US was not polarized enough – that its politics were too local and that voters would be better served by a two-party system with distinct seats and national platforms.
More recently, however, studies reveal that out-group hatred now trumps in-group solidarity. Moreover, the voting behavior of Americans today is driven more by contempt for the opposition than by support for their own side.
The Thirty Years War
The jaded citizen might ask: How did our politics become so toxic? Is it possible to interpret the last four years as an aberration?
Unfortunately, no, say the researchers. Their paper points to causes and trends dating back thirty years.
Part of the story has to do with Republicans and Democrats sorting themselves into identity groups that extend beyond politics. These “mega-identities” have become almost mutually unintelligible: studies show that each group is dramatically misunderstanding the other. As the researchers point out, “Republicans estimate that 32 percent of Democrats are LGBT when in reality it is 6 percent. Democrats estimate that 38 percent of Republicans make more than $250,000 a year, when in fact it’s 2 percent.”
Those identities are fueled by dueling media ecosystems, which researchers say can be traced back to the Reagan administration’s move to end the “fairness doctrine” put in place after World War II to reduce broadcast bias. In the intervening decades, that movement has given us Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and MSNBC. And over the past decade, Facebook and Twitter have intensified sectarianism, as posts that use inflammatory and moralizing language are promoted by algorithms meant to drive “engagement.”
There is also the trend of sharp divergence among political elites, who are increasingly dependent on extremist donors, and who, beginning with Newt Gingrich and his followers in the 1980s and 1990s, have often relied on the “rhetoric of morality outrage’ to gain support. the researchers point out.
The consequences are predictably dire, the researchers argue: increased social alienation, a breakdown in civic trust and norms, and a compromised democracy in which leaders reliant on extremist donors care more about party purity than actual voters.
“Partisans on both sides have created coherent narratives that they experience as capital truth,” says Finkel. “And while the details of the two narratives are starkly different, they line up in promoting the belief that the other side is so corrupt that our side would be a gullible dupe to uphold the kinds of rules that have long underpinned democracy in America. ».
Perhaps most troubling is the tendency of partisans, in response to the “existential threat” posed by the other side, to justify undemocratic behavior: violating election laws, violating checks and balances, even promoting riots.
“As political sectarianism has increased in recent years,” the researchers write, “so has support for violent tactics.”
Lowering the temperature in political tensions
So what can we, as politicians or citizens, do to mitigate political sectarianism in the US? How do we build a political culture that centers on ideas rather than unbridgeable identities?
“The short answer is, slow and steady. There are no silver bullets,” says Wang.
However, the researchers are discussing some possible interventions. For example, correcting our misconceptions about people in the opposing group can help reduce hostility, and learning to focus on policy details rather than identity groups could give partisans a greater appreciation of complexity and foster a sense of humility. According to the authors, “leaders of political, religious, and media organizations committed to bridging differences can seek such strategies to reduce the intellectual self-righteousness that can contribute to political sectarianism.”
A big question is what to do about the influence of social media. How do we encourage people to spend time evaluating the accuracy of claims on Facebook or Twitter? One possible strategy is to rely on crowdsourcing to identify accurate content and reward it through the algorithm, thereby reducing the spread of false or hyper-partisan posts and memes.
Campaign finance reform could help — by eliminating huge contributions from the most extreme donors — and fixing partisan gerrymandering would encourage more competition in the marketplace of ideas.
There are also strategies that may work at the individual level, such as learning to adopt the other side’s moral language when interacting with people of a different political identity. For example, liberals could discuss mask use in terms of homeland security, or conservatives could talk about deficit reduction in terms of taking care of the poorest Americans in the future.
“Sometimes a different context or use of language can be quite powerful,” says Wang. “When you’re dealing with parallel realities, you have to find effective ways to communicate across that divide.”
The researchers hope that their own reframing of the challenges facing the nation will spur meaningful discussion—and perhaps even action—by academics and policymakers.
“Hopefully we’ll get good feedback and some of these interventions can be tested or implemented,” says Wang. “But we see this as a first step. There is a long way to go.”