Over the past decade, the United States has grown increasingly entrenched into political camps. Those divisions have come to resemble cultural, tribal, and religious identities as much as party affiliations. Many experts see this increasing division as a volatile mix, with lack of trust and disinformation ratcheting up the tension.
How will political divisions play out in the U.S.?
We sat down with three experts, Kellogg professors Eli Finkel and Cynthia Wang, and professor James Druckman, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern, to discuss the current state of political sectarianism in the U.S. and how the country can move forward given its deep partisan divides.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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James DRUCKMAN: Historically, when social scientists thought of advanced democracies, including the United States, they didn’t really think about things like democratic backsliding. But the last five years have seen a rise of concern about authoritarian tendencies in the United States. It seems evident that a lot of partisans on either side would potentially privilege their party over democratic processes. So what can we do to try to ameliorate those tendencies? Because we might start seeing real undermining of not only democratic norms, but actual constitutional procedures, and then violence.
Eli FINKEL: Society gets to choose whether they want to select their democratic means and let the chips fall where they may, or choose their partisan ends and then compromise the means. We have to decide whether we want to favor some sort of majoritarian rule, or we want to say, “I know what a good society should look like, and we’ll get there regardless of whether we have to uphold democratic fair play.”
If you look at political violence in the U.S. recently, it’s really a right-wing phenomenon, much more than a left-wing phenomenon, and I can’t figure out why the left isn’t as violent as the right.
It’s not hard for me to understand why people stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2020. If they believed what their leadership was telling them—that this was their 1776 moment—I’m confident that the people who stormed the Capitol thought they were patriots, fighting for democratic integrity and to save their country from evildoers.
We have similarly strong narratives on the left that include that this is a nation built on oppression rather than fairness, that people who have wealth have it on a basis of theft rather than equality or contribution, and that the next election is going to be the last one to prevent the pillagers from permanently implementing their ill-begotten racial hierarchy. And that’s not a fringe perspective on the left right now—it’s an animating mainstream perspective, and I’m sympathetic with much of it.
Is the left going to adhere strongly to democratic norms when those are the stakes?
I’m probably closer than either of you to thinking that we’re on the cusp of real violence in the U.S. Not 1860s Civil War violence, but more like The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
Cynthia WANG: This is speculation, but I wonder if in general it’s easier to coalesce around an identity of some sort, so with the right being demographically more homogeneous than the left, it may be easier for them to come coalesce.
I’ve been talking to some activists from Asian justice groups recently. They find it’s harder to say, “hey, we’re all in this together,” if all the groups look different or have different stereotypes around them. If you’re trying to get all these different types of groups to coalesce, in a way it’s harder to coalesce around violence, too.
We’ve also been interested in how these various narratives are being perpetuated by the media or by social media. We’re seeing conspiratorial narratives perpetuated by social media that undercut or discredit the idea of trust between the two political parties, or the idea that we can share an overall identity as Americans. The more widespread a conspiracy narrative becomes, the more likely people are to act on it. Conspiracy theories surrounding the recent presidential election have already sparked violence.
DRUCKMAN: I think that social-media companies are very conscious of what’s been going on. Facebook has invested an enormous amount of money into a unit to look at misinformation within Facebook—and they’ve poured what for Facebook is not a lot of money into funding social-science research on these topics. But at the end of the day, they are always going to fall back on what Elon Musk just said openly: that it’s an open marketplace, and only when it’s in our commercial interests to take an action would we actually take an action.
FINKEL: We can blame social-media companies, but all they want to do is command our attention. They’re not trying to make us rage at each other. They don’t care. If they could make more money by showing us pictures of bunnies, they would. Turns out that enough of us are partisans that it’s profitable for them to show us lots of nasty stuff. I ultimately hold us responsible, not those companies. Although I do think it’s fair for government to think about regulating them.
Maybe the most insightful comment about our current political system, and I really mean the political system that exists in a polarized and social-media-dominated intellectual landscape, was offered by Steve Bannon, who said that the goal is to flood the zone with shit. I think bad actors—and I would put Steve Bannon in that category—have really leveraged that. Propaganda’s different now. It used to be that you had to weave a story about how one group did this or that. Now, you just have to make it so that the average person gets so exhausted from listening to disinformation that they don’t even know what’s true anymore.
The more widespread a conspiracy narrative becomes, the more likely people are to act on it.
— Cynthia Wang
We’ve got a media ecosystem that is truly overwhelming. Nobody can read all the way across the spectrum in any reasonable way, and even if you could, nobody really has the expertise to adjudicate among all the various information.
WANG: Which makes it so easy to self-select into whatever you want to believe in. And even with companies trying to do things to slow the sharing of misinformation, people are still going to retweet or go to certain Reddits to fulfill or to reinforce their identity. It’s so easy to find exactly what you want. It’s one-way traffic.
Social movements influence dynamics within organizations. Polarization has become such an integral part in that discussion of organizational dynamics that we’re starting to try to understand how people can build allies within organizations to try to deal with heated political issues. For today’s CEOs, not only is the economic mission an important component of leadership, but so is fulfilling a moral value.
FINKEL: I think there are tons of implications of this for the corporate world. Things are heavily partisan in a way that I don’t think was nearly the case in the past. For example, we’re increasingly seeing red-and-blue brands. You tell somebody that you drive a Prius, they will assume that you are a lefty. Drive a pickup truck, they will assume that you are a righty.
In a country that is increasingly sectarian, where our political identities become more and more foundational to who we are, we’re not just going to sit by and let corporations say, “Look, we’re just providing a good or a service, and we just want to make some money.” We are increasingly demanding that they take stands on things. Most corporations don’t want to do this, but that’s not a choice anymore.
My colleague Nour Kteily and I have a new article that looks at how management deals with political sectarianism. And there’s a convergence of a couple of trends. One trend is the management trend to bring your whole self to work. That trend happened largely separately from the politicization of our identities, but at the same time.
But increasingly, our “whole self” is defined in terms of a level of commitment to politics that historically really was more representative of the way people thought about their religions. And so the question is: if you’re bringing your whole self to work in an era of borderline-religious political commitments on both sides, you are very likely to end up with one of two situations.
Either you’re going to have blue workplaces and red workplaces, which will just continue to exacerbate the level of division in the country—although maybe that’s the best we can do at the moment. Or you’re going to have serious conflict in the workplace.
DRUCKMAN: Complicating matters further: now state governments are getting entangled with companies, particularly on issues like critical race theory or abortion. This could make things worse, because even for people who want to go to work and not talk about politics, their companies are going to be invariably taking one side or another with their state government.
WANG: I’m curious if there’s a way forward.
We know what doesn’t work. In my reviews of the research on COVID-19 conspiracy theories, I found that attempts to debunk a conspiracy theory or to provide evidence of how the vaccine works weren’t as effective as we would have hoped.
A new area of work that I’m beginning to explore focuses on the plasticity of identity; after all, we aren’t all one thing all the time. A person can be a Republican, a Democrat, daughter, a brother, a student, a teacher, and more. I’m thinking in particular about work on identity salience, which shows that emphasizing different aspects of peoples’ identities changes how they think about themselves and how they behave. I want to look at what a focus on collective identities, such as nationality or community-based identities, might do instead of a focus on identities in conflict with one another, such as Democrats versus Republicans.
FINKEL: I don’t want us all to agree, and I don’t want us to all be centrists, and it’s not even clear to me that civility is that big a priority. I want there to be vociferous, impassioned fights about what people believe, in support of this policy or that policy, this or that ideological orientation.
But we don’t have a system that allows us to get an accurate perception of the other. What is it that they really want and really believe? The evidence is that the amount of actual agreement is high. And it’s not just agreement about ideas, but approaches.
What I want us to be able to do is actually comprehend what the differences are. And though I’m not that optimistic, I think we can get there. The amount of opportunity for mutually beneficial deals—what negotiation experts call “integrative solutions”—will be falling at our feet once we get off the false vilification and demonization of what the average person on the other side really wants.
What we’re doing wrong is we’re allowing ourselves to be duped into thinking the other side is evil and profoundly different from us on fundamental things like basic values. And it is preventing us from being able to make progress on the goals that matter to large swaths of us.
WANG: It goes back to your point about authenticity. How can we set the stage for people to safely be authentic?
When people try to take the perspective of someone whom they see themselves as in conflict with, this can ironically make things worse, and make people focus on what they differ on most.
On the other hand, when you are authentically yourself—as opposed to not sharing who you really are, perhaps out of defensiveness or self-protection—it means that the commonalities you find with other people are all the more real and can increase trust.
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