Political sectarianism in America - a threat to democracy

A study has just been published in Science, the magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. What follows is my summary:

Political polarisation is not a new phenomenon. It has taken many forms over the centuries and has sometimes led to violence. It seems though that, particularly in America, this polarisation has become far more pronounced over the last 40 or so years. The study now published offers an international comparison of the degree of love for one’s own party and the degree of hatred of the opposing party. 

Data from 1975 through to 2017 in nine Western democracies was looked at. Four nations - America, Canada, New Zealand, and Switzerland - exhibited increasing sectarianism over time, with the rate steepest in America. By contrast, Australia, Britain, Norway, Sweden, and Germany exhibited decreasing sectarianism over that period. Although positive feelings toward members of peoples’ own party remained relatively constant over that period, the degree of hatred felt for other parties showed a strong increase. By 2017, the strength of hatred between opposing parties was stronger in America than in any other nation.

But what has really changed is that attitudes have gone from being mostly a dislike of the other party’s policies, to being an active dislike of the people who are members of that party. Competition among groups in the marketplace of ideas is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. But more recently, there is a polarization which focuses less on ideas than on attacking the ‘abhorrent’ supporters of the opposing party. Although a long time in the making, it has come very much to the fore in Trumps campaigning. We need only to think of ‘Crooked Hilary’ and his continued attempts to paint his opponents as evil rather than politically misguided.

Overall, the researchers tell us that the severity of political conflict has grown increasingly divorced from the magnitude of policy disagreement. And this can have very practical results in the way governments operate at local and national level and can increase tension generally. How can we explain this phenomenon? Obviously, tribalism is a deeply rooted in our psychology, but the suggestion is that this is not the explanation. It is instead something analogous to religious sectarianism - political sectarianism - the tendency to adopt a moral identification with a particular political group and, so, against another.  Whereas the foundation for tribalism is kinship, political sectarianism is analogous to strong faith in the moral correctness and superiority of one’s sect.

It appears that political sectarianism consists of three core ingredients: othering - the tendency to view opposing partisans as essentially different or alien to oneself; aversion - the tendency to dislike and distrust opposing partisans; and moralization - the tendency to view opposing partisans as vile and iniquitous. Rather like the categorisation in this country of all Tories as ‘Tory scum’ by some on the left. The researchers say that it is the coming together of these ingredients that produces this corrosive sectarianism. When all three converge, the possibility of your candidate losing at an election can feel like an existential threat that must be averted - whatever the cost.

Rising political sectarianism in the United States has a number of causes. First, the nation’s major political parties have become more sectionalised in terms of ideological identity and demography. Whereas self-identified liberals and conservatives used to be distributed broadly between the two parties, today the former are overwhelmingly Democrats and the latter are overwhelmingly Republicans. The parties have also tended to divide along racial, religious, educational, and geographic lines. This in turn transforms political orientation into a mega-identity that renders members of the opposing party different from, even incomprehensible to, you. They view opposing party supporters as more socially distant, ideologically extreme, politically engaged, contemptuous, and uncooperative than is actually the case, thereby exacerbating political sectarianism. For example, Democrats condemn Republicans because they estimate that 38% of Republicans earn over $250,000 per year when in reality it is just 2%.

There is a second factor. As Americans have increasingly consumed information slanted through the partisan lens of the media ecosystem, this has inflamed political sectarianism. A requirement for impartiality of the broadcast news media was introduced in 1949. It required that broadcasters discuss controversial topics in a manner that, ultimately, the Federal Communications Commission judged as unbiased. The Reagan administration terminated this “fairness doctrine” in 1987.

Among the first to take advantage of this was Rush Limbaugh, whose influential and highly partisan conservative radio program went into national syndication in 1988. Others, such as CNN, have maintained a degree of impartiality, but the general ethos of impartiality has largely disappeared. We now have instead, for example, the very conservative, Trump supporting, Fox News. People who are already sectarian selectively seek out news which supports their views, which in turn amplifies their sectarianism.

In recent years, Facebook and Twitter have played an influential role in intensifying political sectarianism. They create polarizing echo chambers. A recent experiment offers evidence that Americans who deactivate their Facebook account become less politically polarized. But emotional and moralized posts - those containing words like “hate,” “shame,” or “greed” - are especially likely to be retweeted to your fellow believers in your echo chamber. Social-media technology employs popularity-based algorithms that tailor content to maximize user engagement, thus increasing sectarianism within networks you share with others of like mind.

The benefit to political elites of portraying themselves as very different to their opposition is a third element in the promotion of political sectarianism. These individuals increasingly use disciplined messaging, sent via social media, to discuss their preferred topics in their preferred manner. Such exaggerated messaging leads the public to perceive sharper ideological distinctions between the parties than actually exist.

Newt Gingrich and his followers achieved electoral success with strongly moralized language in the 1980s and 1990s, inspiring political elites on both sides to double down on the rhetoric of moral outrage (e.g., “disgraceful,” “shameful”), further exacerbating sectarianism. These three trends - identity alignment, the rise of partisan media, and elite ideological polarization - have contributed to radically different sectarian narratives about American society and politics. Although the content of these narratives is entirely different across the political divide, their structure is similar: the other side cheats, so our side would be foolish to adhere to long-standing democratic norms. These narratives, which supporters take to be true, increase their willingness to sacrifice those norms in pursuit of partisan ends.

Rising political sectarianism has, not surprisingly, increased the social distance between Democrats and Republicans. Compared to a few decades ago, Americans today are much more opposed to dating or marrying a member of an opposing party; they are wary even of living near or working for one. They are motivated to seek out and believe information more readily when it reflects positively on people of like mind or negatively on supporters of the opposing party.

Perhaps most troubling of all, the political sectarianism of the public incentivises politicians to adopt antidemocratic tactics when pursuing electoral or political victories. A recent experiment shows that, today, a candidate - Democrat or Republican - could get elected despite openly violating democratic principles, like electoral fairness, checks and balances, or civil liberties. Voters’ decisions to support a candidate who openly uses non-democratic means may seem sensible if they believe the harm to democracy from any such decision is small, while the consequences of having the ‘vile’ or ‘criminal’ opposition win the election are ‘catastrophic’. We see this with the attempts by Trump to limit the right to cast ballots in Democratically aligned areas.

And this all undermines representative democracy. Political sectarianism also undermines the representative nature of government. Members of Congress increasingly look after their own, prioritizing partisan purity over the sorts of compromises that would benefit a larger proportion of the population. As political sectarianism has surged in recent years, so too has support for violent tactics. 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 exercise power for their own ends.

Need I say that we should beware a similar set of circumstances arising in the UK?

Paul Buckingham

1 November 2020

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