(CN) — For the first time on record, disdain for the opposing political party outweighs affection for one’s own party, according to a new study published Thursday in the journal Science.
“When ideals and policies matter less than dominating foes, government becomes dysfunctional,” the study concluded.
“The current state of political sectarianism produces prejudice, discrimination and cognitive distortion, undermining the ability of government to serve its core functions of representing the people and solving the nation’s problems,” said lead author Eli Finkel. “Along the way, it makes people increasingly willing to support candidates who undermine democracy and to favor violence in support of their political goals.”
Finkel is a professor of social psychology with appointments at Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and Kellogg School of Management. To ensure the study’s findings incorporated the collective knowledge base, he recruited co-authors from six academic disciplines: political science, psychology, sociology, economics, management and computational social science.
The study is based on a survey of recent scientific literature to interpret the current state of politics, which study authors note is rooted in Newt Gingrich's partisan battles against President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. The findings indicate that the present-day polarization between Republicans and Democrats is so severe, that hating the other side of the political spectrum outranks party affinity.
Using national survey data dating back to the 1970s, the authors combed dozens of published research studies to calculate “the difference between Americans' warm feelings toward their fellow partisans and their cold feelings toward opposing partisans.”
While feelings toward fellow partisans remained friendly, feelings toward opposing partisans have worsened to the point they now exceed warm feelings toward fellow partisans.
To describe the phenomenon, study authors introduce the construct of “political sectarianism,” which has such hallmarks of religious fervor as sin, public shaming and apostasy. But unlike traditional sectarianism, political identity is primary in political sectarianism.
The study identified three key ingredients of political sectarianism, which include seeing the other side as different (othering), as dislikeable (aversion) and as immoral (moralization). Combining these toxic elements forms the “poisonous cocktail” of modern political life.
“Things have gotten much more severe in the past decade, and there is no sign we’ve hit bottom,” said co-author James Druckman, Payson S. Wilder professor of political science and Institute for Policy Research fellow at Northwestern. “As much as the parties differ from one another, partisans perceive even greater differences, believing, for example, that the other party is ideologically extreme, engaged and hostile.”
Correcting such misperceptions could help mitigate sectarianism, which is caused by “identity alignment” (political parties sorting into “mega-identity” along racial, religious, educational and geographic lines); the rise of partisan media; and “elite ideological polarization,” which describes the movement of each party to extremes.
Simply reminding people of what they have in common can reduce out-party hate, according to Finkel.
But structural fixes are also needed, including a realignment of social media algorithms to control the spread of false or “hyperpartisan” content, incentivizing politicians to appeal to a broader range of voters. Reforms around campaign finance and partisan gerrymandering could also reduce sectarian behaviors.
“If the differences between Democrats and Republicans really were as extreme as Americans believe, that could help to explain the contempt,” Finkel observed. “But these differences exist more in people’s heads than in reality. There’s a whole lot of common ground, but Americans struggle to see it.”
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