Political Sectarianism in America

Finkel, Eli J.; Bail, Christopher A.; Cikara, Mina; Ditto, Peter H.; Iyengar, Shanto; Klar, Samara; Mason, Lilliana; McGrath, Mary C.; Nyhan, Brendan; Rand, David G.

Political polarization, a concern in many countries, is especially acrimonious in the United States (see the first box). For decades, scholars have studied polarization as an ideological matter—how strongly Democrats and Republicans diverge vis-à-vis political ideals and policy goals. Such competition among groups in the marketplace of ideas is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. But more recently, researchers have identified a second type of polarization, one focusing less on triumphs of ideas than on dominating the abhorrent supporters of the opposing party (1). This literature has produced a proliferation of insights and constructs but few interdisciplinary efforts to integrate them. We offer such an integration, pinpointing the superordinate construct of political sectarianism and identifying its three core ingredients: othering, aversion, and moralization. We then consider the causes of political sectarianism and its consequences for U.S. society—especially the threat it poses to democracy. Finally, we propose interventions for minimizing its most corrosive aspects.