The Political Divide in America Goes Beyond Polarization and Tribalism
Skip to content
Explore Our Coronavirus Coverage
Politics & Elections Oct 29, 2020

The Political Divide in America Goes Beyond Polarization and Tribalism

These days, political identity functions a lot like religious identity.

people engage in conflict with swords

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research and insights of

Eli J Finkel

Cynthia S. Wang

By now, Americans are used to hearing how “polarized” our country is—how Democrats and Republicans live in separate worlds, or “echo chambers,” with each side prone to bias or “motivated reasoning.” Pundits and scholars have made the case ad nauseum for years.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

We’ll send you one email a week with content you actually want to read, curated by the Insight team.

But the truth might be that it’s even worse than we think, and that polarization doesn’t quite capture the partisan rancor we see on our screens.

According to a new paper, the term that best describes our strife is “political sectarianism,” or the tendency of political groups to align on the basis of moralized identities rather than shared ideas or policy preferences.

The paper’s authors include Eli Finkel and Cynthia Wang, both professors at the Kellogg School, and James Druckman and Mary McGrath, both professors of political science at Northwestern, as well as eleven others from a range of disciplines. All of the authors had planned to attend a conference hosted by Kellogg’s Dispute Resolution and Research Center and Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research before the pandemic intervened, leading the group to put their ideas into a paper instead.

“It’s not just that people only trust or associate with their own side,” says Wang, who directs the Center. “It’s that they’re contemptuous of the other side, whom they see as ‘other’ and less moral—an existential threat. This rise in out-group hate is what we find so alarming.”

Some may call this “tribalism.” But tribalism is based on the metaphor of kinship. In the authors’ view, a better metaphor may be the near-schismatic divides that have historically separated religious sects such as Sunni from Shia or Protestant from Catholic. Hence the term “sectarianism.”

The point is not that the beliefs of Democrats or Republicans derive from religion, but rather that political identity in America today functions as if it is a religious identity. “People on the other side are not just wrong; they’re evil. People on our side who are not sufficiently pure are apostates,” says Finkel.

This overarching idea emerged from a body of research that spans many disciplines, frameworks, and constructs—each with its own emphases and findings.

“In a real sense, polarization is not the problem,” Finkel says. “Clear, well-articulated differences across political parties are a good thing. The problem is that Americans have grown hateful toward opposing partisans based more on a religion-like social identity than on actual disagreements about policies.”

A “Poisonous Cocktail”

Political sectarianism, according to the researchers, has three core ingredients. The first is “othering,” or the tendency to view opponents as fundamentally different or alien from oneself. The second, “aversion,” involves intense dislike and distrust of this other. The third is “moralization,” or the perception that one’s political opponents are wicked or even criminal.

“It’s the combination of all three that makes political sectarianism so corrosive,” Wang says. “Each on its own has adverse effects, but it is the coexistence of all three that creates the poisonous cocktail of political sectarianism.”

“Partisans on both sides have generated coherent narratives, which they experience as capital-T truth.”

— Eli Finkel

For example, two partisans with opposing ideologies might still, given a baseline of trust, solve their policy differences through compromise or persuasion. But if each views the other as a moral threat, it’s a different game. “Now it’s zero-sum,” Wang says, 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 inequities. In the 1870s, for example, political compromises disenfranchised women and racial minorities. In 1950, some political scientists worried that the U.S. wasn’t polarized enough—that its politics were too localized, and that voters would be better served by a two-party system with distinct positions and national platforms.

More recently, however, studies reveal that out-party hatred now exceeds in-group solidarity. In addition, Americans’ voting behavior today is driven more strongly by contempt for the opposition than by support for one’s own side.

The Thirty Years’ War

The weary citizen might inquire: How did our politics get so toxic? Is it possible to interpret the last four years as a deviation?

Unfortunately, no, the researchers say. Their paper points to causes and trends that date back thirty years.

Part of the story has to do with Republicans and Democrats having sorted into identity groups that extend beyond politics. These “mega-identities” have grown almost mutually incomprehensible: studies show that each group dramatically misperceives 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 earn over $250,000 per year when in reality it is 2 percent.”

These identities are reinforced by dueling media ecosystems, which the researchers say can be traced back to the Reagan administration’s move to terminate the “fairness doctrine” put in place after World War II to reduce bias in broadcasting. In the intervening decades, this move has given us Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and MSNBC. And in the last decade, Facebook and Twitter have intensified sectarianism, since posts that use inflammatory and moralizing language are promoted by the algorithms meant to push “engagement.”

There’s also the trend of stark divergence among political elites, who increasingly depend on extremist donors, and who, beginning with Newt Gingrich and his followers in the 1980s and 1990s, often relied on “the rhetoric of moral outrage” to gain support, as the researchers point out.

The consequences are predictably dire, argue the researchers: increased social alienation, a breakdown of civic trust and norms, and a compromised democracy in which leaders beholden to extremist donors care more about partisan purity than actual constituents.

“Partisans on both sides have generated coherent narratives, which they experience as capital-T truth,” says Finkel. “And although the details of the two narratives are entirely different, they align in promoting the belief that the other side is so corrupt that our side would be gullible dupes to adhere to the sorts of norms that have long upheld democracy in America.”

The effects have been on full display in the country’s response to COVID-19. Perhaps most alarming is the tendency of partisans, in response to the “existential threat” the other side poses, to justify antidemocratic behavior: violating election laws, flouting checks and balances, even promoting unrest.

“As political sectarianism has surged in recent years,” the researchers write, “so too has support for violent tactics.”

Lowering the Temperature

So what can we do, as policymakers or citizens, to mitigate political sectarianism in the U.S.? How do we build a political culture that’s focused on ideas and not unbridgeable identities?

“The short answer is, slow and steady. There aren’t any silver bullets,” Wang says.

Still, the researchers discuss a few possible interventions. For example, correcting our misperceptions of those in the opposing group might help reduce hostility, and learning to focus on policy details rather than identity groups might give partisans a greater appreciation for complexity and foster a sense of humility. According to the authors, “leaders of civic, re­ligious, and media organizations committed to bridging divides can look to such strate­gies to reduce intellectual self-righteousness that can contribute to political sectarianism.”

A big question is what to do about social media’s influence. How do we encourage people to spend time assessing the accuracy of claims on Facebook or Twitter? One potential strategy is to rely on crowdsourcing to identify accurate content and reward it through the algorithm, thus reducing the spread of false or hyper-partisan posts and memes.

Campaign finance reform might 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 might work at the individual level, such as learning to adopt some of the moral language of the other side when engaging with individuals with a different political identity. For example, liberals could discuss mask wearing in terms of homeland security, or conservatives could talk about deficit reduction in terms of caring for poorer Americans in the future.

“Sometimes a different frame or use of language can be quite powerful,” Wang says. “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 spurs meaningful discussion—and perhaps even action—by academics and policymakers.

“Hopefully we’ll get great feedback, and some of these interventions can be tested or applied,” says Wang. “But we see this as a first step. There’s a long way to go.”

Featured Faculty

Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of Management & Organizations

Clinical Professor of Management & Organizations; Executive Director of Kellogg's Dispute Resolution and Research Center

About the Writer

Drew Calvert is a freelance writer based in Southern California.

Suggested For You
Most Popular

For one, take a page from the hero’s journey to find transformation in adversity.

This new research could help policymakers deliver more effective COVID-safety messaging.

Most Popular Podcasts

Coworkers can make us crazy. Here’s how to handle tough situations.

Plus: Four questions to consider before becoming a social-impact entrepreneur.

Finding and nurturing high performers isn’t easy, but it pays off.

A Broadway songwriter and a marketing professor discuss the connection between our favorite tunes and how they make us feel.

More in Politics & Elections