Why Political Sectarianism Is a Growing Threat to American Democracy

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American democracy faces many challenges: New limits on voting rights. The corrosive effect of misinformation. The rise of domestic terrorism. Foreign interference in elections. Efforts to subvert the peaceful transition of power. And making matters worse on all of these issues is a fundamental truth: 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 Donald J. Trump’s successful presidential bid, President Biden’s tortured effort to reconcile his inaugural 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.

In recent years, many analysts and commentators have told a now-familiar story of how democracies die at the hands of authoritarianism: A demagogic populist exploits dissatisfaction with the prevailing liberal order, wins power through legitimate means, and usurps constitutional power to cement his or her own rule. It’s the story of Putin’s Russia, Chavez’s Venezuela and even Hitler’s Germany.

Sectarianism, in turn, instantly evokes an additional set of very different cautionary tales: Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia, regions where religious sectarianism led to dysfunctional government, violence, insurgency, civil war and even disunion or partition.

These aren’t always stories of authoritarian takeover, though sectarianism can yield that outcome as well. As often, it’s the story of a minority that can’t accept being ruled by its enemy.

In many ways, that’s the story playing out in America today.

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.

Any casual observer of American politics would agree that there’s plenty of hostility between Democrats and Republicans. Many don’t just disagree, they dislike each other. They hold discriminatory attitudes in job hiring as they do on the Implicit Association Test. They tell pollsters they wouldn’t want their child to marry an opposing partisan. In a paper published in Science in October by 16 prominent political scientists, the authors argue that by some measures the hatred between the two parties “exceeds longstanding antipathies around race and religion.”

More than half of Republicans and more than 40 percent of Democrats tend to think of the other party as “enemies,” rather than “political opponents,” according to a CBS News poll conducted in January. A majority of Americans said that other Americans were the greatest threat to America.

On one level, partisan animosity just reflects the persistent differences between the two parties over policy issues. Over the past two decades, they have fought bruising battles over the Iraq war, gun rights, health care, taxes and more. Perhaps hard feelings wouldn’t necessarily be sectarian in nature.

But the two parties have not only become more ideologically polarized — they have simultaneously sorted along racial, religious, educational, generational and geographic lines. Partisanship has become a “mega-identity,” in the words of the political scientist Lilliana Mason, representing both a division over policy and a broader clash between white, Christian conservatives and a liberal, multiracial, secular elite.

And as mass sectarianism has grown in America, some of the loudest partisan voices in Congress or on Fox News, Twitter, MSNBC and other platforms have determined that it’s in their interest to lean into cultural warfare and inflammatory rhetoric to energize their side against the other.

The conservative outrage over the purported canceling of Dr. Seuss is a telling marker of how intergroup conflict has supplanted old-fashioned policy debate. Culture war politics used to be synonymous with a fight over “social issues,” like abortion or gun policy, where government played a central role. The Dr. Seuss controversy had no policy implications. What was at stake was the security of one sect, which saw itself as under attack by the other. It’s the kind of issue that would arouse passions in an era of sectarianism.

A Morning Consult/Politico poll conducted in March found that Republicans had heard more about the Dr. Seuss issue than they had heard about the $1.9 trillion stimulus package. A decade earlier, a far smaller stimulus package helped launch the Tea Party movement.

The Dr. Seuss episode is hardly the only example of Republicans de-emphasizing policy goals in favor of stoking sectarianism. Last month, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, penned an op-ed in support of unionization at Amazon as retribution for the Seattle company’s cultural liberalism. At its 2020 national convention, the Republican Party didn’t even update its policy platform.

And perhaps most significant, Republicans made the choice in 2016 to abandon laissez-faire economics and neoconservative foreign policy and embrace sectarianism all at once and in one package: Donald J. Trump. The G.O.P. primaries that year were a referendum on whether it was easier to appeal to conservatives with conservative policy or by stoking sectarian animosity. Sectarianism won.

Sectarianism has been so powerful among Republicans in part because they believe they’re at risk of being consigned to minority status. The party has lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, and conservatives fear that demographic changes promise to further erode their support. And while defeat is part of the game in democracy, it is a lot harder to accept in a sectarian society.

It is not easy to accept being ruled by a hostile, alien rival. It can make “political losses feel like existential threats,” as the authors of the study published in Science put it.

As a result, the minority often poses a challenge to democracy in a sectarian society. It’s the minority who bares the costs, whether material or psychological, of accepting majority rule in a democracy. In the extreme, rule by a hostile, alien group might not feel much different than being subjugated by another nation.

Democracies in sectarian societies often create institutional arrangements to protect the minority, like minority or group rights, power-sharing agreements, devolution or home rule. Otherwise, the most alienated segments of the minority might resort to violence and insurgency in hopes of achieving independence.

Republicans are not consigned to permanent minority status like the typical sectarian minority, of course. The Irish had no chance to become the majority in the United Kingdom. Neither did the Muslims of the British Raj or the Sunnis in Iraq today. Democrats just went from the minority to the majority in all three branches of elected government in four years; Republicans could do the same.

But changes in the racial and cultural makeup of the country leave conservatives feeling far more vulnerable than Republican electoral competitiveness alone would suggest. Demographic projections suggest that non-Hispanic whites will become a minority sometime in the middle of the century. People with a four-year college degree could become a majority of voters even sooner. Religiosity is declining.

The sense that the country is changing heightens Republican concerns. In recent days, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson embraced the conspiracy theory that the Democratic Party was trying to “trying to replace the current electorate” with new voters from “the third world.” Far-right extremists in the House are looking to create an “America First Caucus” that calls for “common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions” and an infrastructure that “befits the progeny of European architecture.”

It is not easy to pin down where political sectarianism in America fits on a scale from zero to “The Troubles.” But nearly every protection that sectarian minorities pursue is either supported or under consideration by some element of the American right.

That includes the more ominous steps. In December, Rush Limbaugh said he thought conservatives were “trending toward secession,” as there cannot be a “peaceful coexistence” between liberals and conservatives. One-third of Republicans say they would support secession in a recent poll, along with one-fifth of Democrats.

One-third of Americans believe that violence could be justified to achieve political objectives. In a survey conducted in January, a majority of Republican voters agreed with the statement that the “traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.” The violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 suggests that the risks of sustained political violence or even insurgency can’t be discounted.

Whatever risk of imminent and widespread violence might have existed in January appears to have passed for now.

Instead, Joe Biden was sworn in as president — a person who did not attempt to arouse the passions of one sect against the other during his campaign. His nomination and election demonstrates that sectarianism, while on the rise, may still have limits in America: The median voter prefers bipartisanship and a de-escalation of political conflict, creating an incentive to run nonsectarian campaigns.

Yet whether Mr. Biden’s presidency will de-escalate sectarian tensions is an open question.

Mr. Biden is pursuing an ambitious policy agenda, which may eventually refocus partisan debate on the issues or just further alienate one side on matters like immigration or the filibuster. Still, the authors of the Science paper write that “emphasis on political ideas rather than political adversaries” would quite likely to be “a major step in the right direction.”

And Mr. Biden himself does not seem to illicit much outrage from the conservative news media or rank-and-file — perhaps because of his welcoming message or his identity as a 78-year-old white man from Scranton, Pa.

But sectarianism is not just about the conduct of the leader of a party — it’s about the conflict between two groups. Nearly anyone’s conduct can worsen hostility between the two sides, even if it is not endorsed by the leadership of a national political party. Mr. Carlson and the congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene are only the latest examples.

It leaves America at an uncertain juncture. Mr. Biden may dampen sectarian tensions compared with Mr. Trump, but it is not clear whether festering grievances and resentments will fade into the background with so many others acting to stoke division.

Sectarianism, after all, can last for decades or even centuries after the initial cause for hostility has passed.

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