Hazardous Divergence: Sociopolitical Sectarianism in America
There’s no doubt that identity politics, social media and COVID-19 are all factors that increased political tensions exponentially around the world. But more specifically, in the U.S., where we’ve essentially come to an existential inflection point. We will either collectively make efforts to reembrace civil discourse amongst our fellow citizens despite differing political ideologies. Or, we will plunge further into the malevolent tribalism that currently permeates our cultural and political spectrums.
Civil discourse between opposing political ideals is one of the most paramount characteristics of a strong and flourishing democracy. In fact, it’s one of the key principles in which our country was founded. Social divergence is rooted in tribalism, which from an anthropological standpoint, is a completely natural mammalian tendency. However, the U.S. Constitution was built and ratified with the principles of compromise and thoughtful deliberation lest too many decisions be one-sided and made by based on passion vice reason. In fact, collaborative efforts to draft and enact bipartisan legislation, has given the U.S. some of its greatest collective victories.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964
In June 1963, prompted by massive resistance to desegregation and the murder of Medgar Evers, President John Kennedy asked Congress for a comprehensive civil rights bill. After Kennedy's assassination in November, President Lyndon Johnson pressed hard, with the support of Roy Wilkins and Clarence Mitchell, to secure the bill's passage the following year. In 1964, Congress passed Public Law 88-352 (78 Stat. 241). With racial tension at a fever pitch in the U.S., Civil rights leaders and legislators banded together to get the seemingly impossible accomplished. (1)
The 1983 Social Security Amendments
In March of 1983, two leaders of strong ideological opposition, Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan, pushed differences aside to touch the third rail of American politics in order to bring this legislation to fruition for the collective good of the country. This was a major milestone in the legislative history of the Social Security program. They might fairly be described as the last major Social Security legislation of the twentieth century. These amendments grew out of a set of recommendations produced by a special bipartisan Presidential Commission. (2)
The 1990 Balanced Budget Efforts
Alice Rivlin, Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, George Bush Sr and many others of opposing ideals worked together on the bipartisan effort to enable financial reforms to reduce the U.S. deficit. The Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 was enacted as part of a budget reconciliation bill that reduced the deficit. The act replaced the focus on deficit targets under Gramm-Rudman-Hollings with a two-pronged procedural approach to budgetary enforcement:
1. The implementation of pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) procedures to control new direct spending and revenue legislation.
2. Discretionary spending limits to control the level of discretionary spending.
In contrast to Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, these budget control mechanisms sought to preserve the deficit reduction achieved in the accompanying legislation rather than force subsequent legislation. As originally enacted, these mechanisms were to be in force for a period of five years, but they were modified and extended twice. In 1993, they were extended through 1998 in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, and in 1997, they were extended through 2002 in the Budget Enforcement Act of 1997.(3)
The First Step Act 2018
On December 21, 2018, President Trump signed into law the First Step Act (FSA) of 2018 (P.L. 115- 391). The act was the culmination of a bipartisan effort to improve criminal justice outcomes, as well as to reduce the size of the federal prison population while creating mechanisms to maintain public safety. (4)
This was a massive victory not only for victims of the U.S. prison industrial complex, but also for bipartisanship in government as a whole.
But the tides have shifted
In recent years, sociopolitical sectarianism has reached such a severe level of dysfunction that a distinctive subset of this polarization has come to the forefront of political culture. This subset of political and arguably toxic divergence is rooted in subjugating, humiliating, discrediting and attacking fellow citizens. More nonsensically still, these attacks have been occurring merely due to differing ideals more so than championing platforms of one’s own political beliefs. In short, collective out-party hatred overshadows in-party love.
A recent study highlights the core components of this sociopolitical divergence: othering, aversion, and moralization. The study also identifies how these actions threaten democracy as well as potential methods of circumvention for them. But before delving into that we must examine the path that brought our country to its current state of friction.
How Did we Get Here?
Unfortunately, there isn’t one thing that can be faulted with the current state of political division in our country. Identity politics and social media have cyclically served as both fire and gasoline over the past few decades. The unfortunate product of these things in the past seven years, however, has more Americans than ever committed to the “Us vs Them” mentality in both political parties.
The Zero-Sum Game Fallacy
We’ve arrived at a point in our society’s political ideology that in order for “us” to win, “they” must lose. The “Us vs Them” mentality amongst our fellow citizens is intrinsically counterproductive to the very concept our democracy is rooted in. Most importantly, this concept simply isn’t true, it’s merely been framed to seem that way.
Republicans and Democrats being so viciously opposed to each other would make strategic sense, if by some oddity in behavioral science, that opposition served as a cogent path to bipartisan legislation being negotiated on and signed into law for the collective betterment of our country.
However, sectarianism by nature is non-collaborative, and often triggers irrational hatred of opposing parties merely based on personality and or identity, which ultimately impedes arriving at a ZOPA, finding a BATNA or any mutually beneficial compromise whatsoever. There’s data to support the fact that things have gotten worse.
System 2 is much more deliberate, and partitions focus to more intricate cognitive tasks that require it e.g. working through math problems, using patience or performing complex physical undertakings. These functions are akin to idiosyncratic use of agency, choice, and concentration.
You may be asking yourself how this applies to the shift towards political sectarianism. The simplest explanation is that we’re now at a point that a majority of us no longer use system 2 to evaluate the policies and ideals individuals from opposing parties believe in. The majority of our populations’ cognitive function has pivoted to system 1 as soon as we find out someone holds allegiance to a differing set of political ideals regardless of any foundational and comparable similarities we share.
Though social media had the initial intent of bringing people together, its collective business model has largely shifted to selling division tailored towards our fears and dislikes strongly rooted in conformation biases ultimately worsening the effects of negative feedback loops.
Othering is often a two-step process. Step 1: labeling a group according to interpreted points of opposition e.g. political parties, sexual orientation, religion, gender, ethnicity, skin color. Step 2: Making the proclamation that said group/groups are invalid, irrelevant and undeserving of acknowledgement.
Using baseless moral assertions as a point of leverage or validation to support personal ideals. Implying that your values transcend argument or debate because they have some sort of intrinsic nobility.
“Perhaps most troubling of all, the political sectarianism of the public incentivizes politicians to adopt antidemocratic tactics when pursuing electoral or political victories. A recent experiment shows that, today, a majority-party candidate in most U.S. House districts—Democrat or Republican—could get elected despite openly violating democratic principles like electoral fairness, checks and balances, or civil liberties. Voters' decisions to support such a candidate may seem sensible if they believe the harm to democracy from any such decision is small while the consequences of having the vile opposition win the election are catastrophic. However, the accumulation of such choices undermines representative democracy. And a society that pretends to adhere to democratic principles but actually does not is one in which people who possess resources and influence can leverage democratic gray zones to impose their will on those who do not.
Sectarianism stimulates activism, but also a willingness to inflict collateral damage in pursuit of political goals and to view copartisans who compromise as apostates. As political sectarianism has surged in recent years, so too has support for violent tactics. In addition, highly sectarian partisans are vulnerable to exploitation. In 2016, Russia sought to stoke partisan outrage during America's election by creating fake social-media avatars with names like “Blacktivist” and “army_of_jesus.” These efforts succeeded in duping sectarian extremists—especially those who were older and more conservative than average—into amplifying the avatars' memes about the depravity of opposing partisans. In doing so, these partisans served as pawns in Russia's efforts to weaken America.” (6)
If we’re ever going to arrive at some semblance of a collective sense of unity, we all need to make an effort to find, embrace and identify with our many shared commonalities if not as fellow citizens, at the very least, as humans.
We care about social mobility. As we’ve been raised to believe that America is the land of opportunity, we don’t want our socioeconomic standing to limit our potential trajectory or list of opportunities.
Of course, at the end of the day we’re all what time and circumstance makes us. We all have experiences that shape and mold our ideals. But that doesn’t mean we can ask why we feel the need at time to elicit emotion over conflicts that patience and the application of rationale may quell and even better serve as catalyst to civil discourse. In fact, we should ask ourselves why regularly.
Hard to swallow pills
As a country, we’ve exposed our critical vulnerabilities to the entire world. That’s not a matter of opinion, that is fact. Our enemies are now very well aware how quickly biological warfare can kill our people and ruin our economy. They now know that cyber warfare can easily pit people against each other, manipulate elections and obliterate our democracy.
Worst of all, they know this isn’t due to our inability to combat said mediums of warfare, it’s the hazardous divergence that’s occurred over the years and systematically eroded the core of our democracy. Our internal tribalism has weakened us as a whole.
Empires fall when they lose sight of the principles that brought them to their respective states of greatness.
Make no mistake about it, we’re on the verge of things never going back to the country we remember. And we’ve come to this point because we’ve forgotten the things that made us great wasn’t just capitalism, our military strength or our infrastructure – it’s our people.
We The People
If we don’t find a way to stoke the fires of patriotism that have held us together as a nation through so many hardships, we may very well be witnessing the end of this wild experiment we call America.
This wasn’t meant to be a lecture as much as food for thought on the eve of the most important election of our lifetime. Many of us are set in our ways and won’t even consider the concept of compromise because we’re so strongly entrenched in the idea that our personal ideals alone are right and no one else can offer meaningful perspective.
November 2, 2020
Eli J. Finkel 1, Christopher A. Bail 2, Mina Cikara 3, Peter H. Ditto 4, Shanto Iyengar 5, Samara Klar 6, Lilliana Mason 7, Mary C. McGrath 1, Brendan Nyhan 8, David G. Rand 9, Linda J. Skitka 10, Joshua A. Tucker 11, Jay J. Van Bavel 11, Cynthia S. Wang 1, James N. Druckman 1, Political Sectarianism in America