American politics has grown increasingly polarized for decades, but recently it’s reached a tipping point, say researchers from Northwestern University. Rather than simply disagreeing about policies, members of each party now view the other side with outright contempt and consider them an “existential threat,” they say in a paper published Oct. 30 in the journal Science.

Their insights were the subject of a recent Kellogg Insight, “The Political Divide in America Goes Beyond Polarization and Tribalism.”

The study’s authors use the term “political sectarianism” to describe the state of American politics, which is defined as “the tendency of political groups to align on the basis of moralized identities rather than shared ideas or policy preferences.”

“It’s not just that people only trust or associate with their own side,” says Cynthia S. Wang, professor and executive director of Kellogg’s Dispute Resolution and Research Center, one of the study’s authors. “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.”

It’s gotten to the point where “people on the other side are not just wrong; they’re evil. People on our side who are not sufficiently pure are apostates,” says co-author Eli J. Finkel, a professor at Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences.

And voting behavior is following suit, with many people motivated more strongly by contempt for the opposition than support for their own candidate.

Finkel notes that some level of polarization is not necessarily a bad 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.”

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

When each side views the other as a moral threat, it becomes a zero-sum game, they note, and compromise feels like a betrayal of beliefs.

How did America’s political divide get so deep?

The researchers say part of the problem is that the news media has grown increasingly biased since the 1987 termination of the FCC’s “fairness doctrine,” which required broadcasters to discuss controversial topics in an unbiased way. The rise of social media companies like Facebook and Twitter has only intensified the problem in the last decade, since the algorithms used seem to promote inflammatory and moralizing language.

The Kellogg Insight also provides identifies possible strategies to that individuals and organizations can adopt to bridge political divides and build a political culture focused on ideas.

Source: “The Political Divide in America Goes Beyond Polarization and Tribalism,” Kellogg Insight, Oct. 29, 2020; “Political sectarianism in America,” Science, Oct. 30, 2020