The growing extremism of political sectarianism has given way to a new kind of polarization, one that focuses on dominating the opposition rather than on championing ideas. In this paper, we propose interventions to mitigate this kind of polarization and protect our democracy.
Finkel, Eli J., Christopher A. Bail, Mina Cikara, Peter H. Ditto, Shanto Iyengar, Samara Klar, Lilliana Mason et al. “Political Sectarianism in America.” Science 370, no. 6516 (2020): 533–36. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abe1715
Oct 30, 2020
Area of Study
Political polarization, a concern in many countries, is especially acrimonious in the United States. For decades, scholars have studied polarization as an ideological matter — how strongly Democrats and Republicans diverge vis-à-vis political ideals and policy goals. Such competition among groups in the marketplace of ideas is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. But more recently, researchers have identified a second type of polarization, one focusing less on triumphs of ideas than on dominating the abhorrent supporters of the opposing party. This literature has produced a proliferation of insights and constructs but few interdisciplinary efforts to integrate them. We offer such an integration, pinpointing the superordinate construct of political sectarianism and identifying its three core ingredients: othering, aversion, and moralization. We then consider the causes of political sectarianism and its consequences for U.S. society — especially the threat it poses to democracy. Finally, we propose interventions for minimizing its most corrosive aspects.
For decades, scholars have studied polarization as an ideological matter—how strongly Democrats and Republicans diverge in their political ideals and policy goals. Generally, competition and debate about ideas is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. However, researchers have identified a second type of polarization that focuses more on dominating the opposition, and less on championing ideas. Regardless of what it’s called, this type of polarization has some form of a moralized identification that pits one political group against another. And while previous literature has produced many insights on the topic, there have been few interdisciplinary efforts to integrate them, which is what we attempt to do in this paper.
First, we offer the construct of political sectarianism and identify its three core ingredients: othering (i.e., labeling groups of people as either “us” or “them”), aversion, and moralization. We then consider the causes of political sectarianism and its consequences for U.S. society, especially the threat it poses to democracy. Finally, we propose interventions for minimizing its most negative effects.
As political sectarianism grows more extreme, it may also become self-reinforcing, rendering mitigation efforts more difficult. Scholars have long argued that a shared threat can bring people together, but such threats may do the opposite when sectarianism is extreme. Bolstering the emphasis on political ideas rather than political adversaries is not a sufficient solution, but it is likely to be a major step in the right direction. The interventions proposed in this paper offer some promising leads, but any serious attempt will require multifaceted efforts to change leadership, media, and democratic systems in ways that are sensitive to human psychology.