American democracy faces many challenges: The corrosive effect of misinformation. The rise of domestic terrorism. Foreign interference in elections. New limits on voting rights. Efforts to subvert the peaceful transition of power. And making matters worse on all of these issues is a fundamental truth that the two political parties see the other as an enemy.
It’s an outlook that makes compromise impossible and encourages elected officials to violate norms in pursuit of an agenda or an electoral victory. It turns debates over changing voting laws into existential showdowns. And it undermines the willingness of the loser to accept defeat — an essential requirement of a democracy.
This threat to democracy has a name: sectarianism. It’s not a term usually used in discussions about American politics. It’s better known in the context of religious sectarianism — like the hostility between Sunnis and Shia in Iraq. Yet a growing number of eminent political scientists contend that political sectarianism is on the rise in America.
That contention helps make sense of a lot of what’s been going on in American politics in recent years, including President Donald J. Trump’s successful bid for the White House in 2016, President Biden’s tortured effort to reconcile his Inauguration Day call for “unity” with his partisan legislative agenda, and the plan by far-right House members to create a congressional group that would push some views associated with white supremacy. Most of all, it re-centers the threat to American democracy on the dangers of a hostile and divided citizenry.
Whether religious or political, sectarianism is about two hostile identity groups who not only clash over policy and ideology, but see the other side as alien and immoral. It’s the antagonistic feelings between the groups, more than differences over ideas, that drives sectarian conflict.