Doom spiral

The United States is dangerously divided. Is there a way back?

Editor’s note: This story is part of Deseret Magazine’s January/February double issue addressing political polarization.

It is now difficult to remember that, until a few decades ago, most Democrats did not hate Republicans, and most Republicans did not hate Democrats. Very few Americans thought that the policies of the other side were a threat to the country or worried about their child marrying a spouse who belonged to a different political party.

All of this has changed, at rapid speed and to an astonishing degree. Sixty percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Republicans would, according to Gallup, now balk at their son or daughter marrying a supporter of a different political party. Meanwhile, the number of political partisans who think that the country could withstand a victory by the other side has fallen precipitously. In the run-up to the 2020 presidential elections, both 9 out of 10 supporters of Joe Biden and 9 out of  10 supporters of Donald Trump were convinced that a victory by their opponent would cause “lasting harm to the United States.” 

As somebody who has lived in many different countries — including Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom — before coming to the United States, I have long had the sense that American levels of partisan animosity have become exceptionally high. Although, in plenty of other nations, the left and the right mistrust and dislike each other, it never felt to me that their hatred was quite so personal or intense as in the U.S.

Depolarizing ourselves

A study published in 2022 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace confirms that impression. Drawing on V-Dem, an international dataset published by an independent research institute in Sweden that covers 202 countries and goes back over two centuries, its authors assess to what degree each country suffers from “pernicious” levels of partisan polarization. Do many citizens have such hostile views towards supporters of other parties that they become more likely to engage in violence or breaking the rules of the political system in ways that put the very survival of democracy at risk?

The authors’ conclusion is startling: No established democracy in recent history has been as deeply polarized as the U.S. It follows that there is little precedent for what we would have to do to ensure that America might one day become less divided than it is now.

“For the United States,” Jennifer McCoy, the lead author on the study and a professor of political science at Georgia State University, told me in an interview, “I am very pessimistic.”

No established democracy in recent history has been as deeply polarized as the U.S. There is little precedent for what we would have to do to ensure that America might one day become less divided than it is now.

The problem of polarization is worldwide. On virtually every continent, supporters of rival political camps are more likely to interact in a hostile manner than they did a few decades ago. According to the Carnegie study, “us versus them polarization” has been increasing since 2005. McCoy and her colleagues do not attempt to explain the causes of this change, but the timing and the global nature of the increase in partisan polarization do strongly suggest one of the culprits: Social media makes it easier for existing political parties to become radicalized, for upstart extremists to storm the political stage, and for supporters of opposing camps to vilify one another with abandon.

As near-universal as the phenomenon has been, it is far more pronounced in some countries than in others. On a five-point scale, with 0 indicating a country with very little partisan polarization, and 4 indicating a country with extreme polarization, both the U.S. and the rest of the world displayed only a modest degree of polarization at the turn of the millennium: they each scored a 2.0. By 2020, the world average had increased significantly, to a score of about 2.4. But in the United States, polarization accelerated much more sharply, growing to a score of 3.8 out of 4 by 2020. 

Such high levels of polarization are hardly without historical precedent. Over the past century, many dictatorships have manifested dire levels of internal enmity; so have societies beset by civil war or widespread political violence. But among countries whose political institutions have been relatively stable over time, America in its current state is an eye-popping outlier. “Very few countries classified as full liberal democracies have ever reached pernicious levels,” the study’s authors write. “The United States stands out today as the only wealthy Western democracy with persistent levels of pernicious polarization.” When I spoke by phone to McCoy, she was even more categorical: “The situation of the United States is unique.”

One nation indivisible

This finding has particular salience. To live in a country where political disagreements can turn into personal vendettas or to feel that the stakes of the next election are the very survival of democracy is, to say the least, no fun. But of greater import is that pernicious levels of polarization tend to involve a cascade of other consequences. As a growing body of research shows, pernicious polarization makes harder the task of tackling urgent social problems, from corrupt officials to dangerous pathogens, erodes trust in democratic norms and political institutions, and may result in political violence and civil war.

As we are already seeing in the United States, such extreme polarization also makes it much more difficult to safeguard democratic institutions. The fundamental premise of democracy is that citizens agree to be ruled by whoever wins the election. But if many citizens come to believe that letting the other side rule poses a threat to their well-being, even their lives, they may no longer be willing to accept the outcome of an election they lose. The January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol is, among other things, a symptom of pernicious polarization.

The problem of polarization is worldwide. On virtually every continent, supporters of rival political camps are more likely to interact in a hostile manner than they did a few decades ago.

One reason to study polarization around the globe is that the history of other nations’ problems may offer clues to how the U.S. could get its polarization under control. Over the past century, there have been some notable cases — from Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, to Rwanda in the 2000s and 2010s — of countries that have undergone a process of “depolarization.” In Italy, an escalating spiral of political violence from both the far-left and the far-right threatened to tear the country apart; but in part because political leaders from rival parties came together to denounce political violence, the country proved capable of lowering the political temperature and putting an end to endemic terrorist attacks.

The Rwandan case is even more dramatic. In the 1990s, Hutus murdered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis; but in the aftermath of the genocide, a concerted attempt at national reconciliation (albeit under the leadership of an authoritarian strongman) was able to sustain a long-lasting peace. Could such cases of depolarization provide inspiration for Americans who want to put an end to their own spiral of mutual hatred?

Unfortunately, the data provided in the Carnegie study does not offer much cause for optimism. In about half of the countries that experienced pernicious polarization over the past century, a state of mutual distrust and hatred turned into a permanent condition. Although political tensions waxed and waned as elections and other political events came and went, these countries never fell below the threshold of pernicious polarization for an extended period of time. A great many countries on every continent never recovered: Once polarization has set in, it seems to last forever.

Seven ideas to reduce political polarization

That leaves the other half of the cases. But those don’t offer that much reason for hope, either. For one, many of these supposed success stories saw, after a decade, either a relapse to pernicious levels of polarization or only a moderate degree of depolarization. For another, most of the countries that managed to depolarize in a lasting way did so in the wake of major political disasters. They experienced civil wars, were ruled by cruel dictators, or lacked national independence. Only after they had ended hostilities, thrown off a dictator, or won national independence were they able to escape a vicious cycle of polarization. “The prevalence of systemic shocks in bringing about depolarization,” the study’s authors note, “was especially striking.”

That no such systemic shock has struck the U.S. in recent history would seem to bode ill for American prospects of depolarization. The examples from elsewhere might even suggest that things will have to get a whole lot worse before we can dream of their getting better. Is it naïve, then, to hope that we might one day have a more functional polity? Or must we resign ourselves to the “accelerationist” maxim that things need to fall apart before we can put them back together?

“The United States stands out today as the only wealthy Western democracy with persistent levels of pernicious polarization.”

Pernicious polarization is one of the most vicious problems that democracies around the world now face. The state of America’s union is especially fractious, with many predicting that the spiral of mutual mistrust and even violence is only going to accelerate over the coming years. These are grounds for grave concern. Yet I believe the predicament we face in the United States may not be quite as dire as it appears.

The limitations of the Carnegie Endowment study are a good example for why it is important to take the predictions of doom that are now so prevalent with a large grain of salt. While the data about polarization on which its main findings are based technically aggregates 120 years of historical information about a large number of countries, it is actually generated in a rather modest manner — by asking between five and seven country experts a single question about any given nation: “To what extent is society divided into mutually antagonistic camps in which political differences affect social relationships beyond political discussions?”

If the experts answer that this is the case to a “noticeable extent,” with supporters of opposing camps “more likely to interact in a hostile than friendly manner,” this counts as a 3, on a scale of 0-4. That score is enough to qualify as “pernicious polarization.” What’s more, this assessment is highly retrospective: the dataset’s score for how polarized America was in, say, 1935, or in 1968, or in 1999, is based on an assessment that a handful of social scientists made within just the last few years. This method of quantifying polarization creates two possible sources of distortion: presentism and provincialism.

Experts who are evaluating how polarized America has been at various points over the past century have very different information available to them about each of the years for which they are giving an assessment. They might remember having a shouting match with an uncle at last year’s Thanksgiving dinner, but they cannot possibly have such a visceral feel for political divisions in, say, the 1910s, however much they’ve read about the period.

This is the risk of presentism. With their personal experience of partisan conflict and the shrill tone on social media understandably top of mind, they may overestimate how much partisan hatred there is today and underestimate how much partisan hatred there was in the past (or, alternatively, project their heightened sense of polarization today back onto the past). “Expert surveys are subjective,” McCoy admitted, when I put this concern to her. “There is no way of getting around that.” 

What’s more, experts who are answering the survey question may have different cultural assumptions about what constitutes a hostile political interaction. This — the danger of provincialism — makes comparisons among countries more difficult. In America, what is salient is how much nastier and more aggressive political discourse has become in recent decades.

In a society that recently experienced civil war, what may be more salient is that people who were until lately killing one another are now willing to debate their disagreements without resort to violence. This disjunction could lead experts to assess a comparatively peaceful country that is more divided than it was in recent memory as more polarized than a war-riven country that is less divided than it once was.

The myth of left and right

The risk of provincialism is especially pronounced in the American case. In many of the countries that have experienced pernicious polarization, partisan political identity aligns almost perfectly with visible markers of ethnic or religious identity. In countries such as Lebanon, Kenya or Nigeria, it is enough to see the name or a photograph of a person to predict with a high degree of accuracy whom they would vote for. When polarization spikes in these places, supporters and opponents of a political candidate don’t just shout at one another at campaign rallies; they refuse to cooperate on basic civic tasks and even police neighborhoods with vigilante violence against members of the “wrong” group.

“If you work for the Croat Catholic fire department,” Eboo Patel, a prominent interfaith leader, writes about Mostar, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, “you don’t respond to the burning buildings of Bosnian Muslims, even if you happen to be closer. And if you work for the Bosnian Muslim fire department, you let the flames engulf Croat Catholic homes.”

America’s polarization seems to differ from Bosnia’s — which experts scored as a 3.2 out of 4, significantly lower than the United States — in two crucial ways.

First, the overlap between partisan polarization and other social divisions, like race, class or religion, is at best imperfect. Although demographic patterns do, of course, offer clues to the likelihood of people’s support for Democrats or Republicans, a lot of white Americans still vote for the Democratic Party, and a significant number of Latino Americans — indeed, more and more, if recent polls are to be believed — vote for the Republican Party.

And second, there remain many spheres of life in which people put their political differences aside or may not even be aware of them. With some notable exceptions, Americans who belong to different political camps treat one another respectfully when they meet in the workplace or at little league games. And the local fire department certainly does not ask for your voter registration before deciding whether to put out the fire engulfing your home.

The country urgently needs institutional reforms and visionary leaders who can lower the stakes of political competition. The survival of the American Republic may depend upon it.

Perhaps America is not so much uniquely polarized as polarized in a unique way. 

Fifty years ago, the main forms of outgroup hatred in the United States involved race and religion. They pitted Protestants against Catholics, Christians against Jews, and, of course, whites against Blacks. Most Americans did not care if their children married someone from a different political party; but they would have been horrified to learn that their child was planning to marry someone of a different race or faith.

These forms of discrimination obviously have not disappeared. But over the decades, they have significantly attenuated. The number of Americans who oppose interracial marriage, for example, has fallen from well over 9 in 10 to far less than 1 in 10 since 1960. And as the rapid increase in the number of interracial babies shows, this is not just a matter of people telling pollsters what they want to hear. In contrast to many other deeply polarized societies, in America the boundaries between the opposing political camps are based less on enduring demographic characteristics and more on ideological ones.

A host of recent social science studies backs this up. In one experiment, for example, a sample of Americans were asked to award scholarships to fictitious high school students. Presented with a candidate’s résumé that suggested the applicant they were evaluating was of a different racial group to theirs, the subjects engaged in surprisingly little discrimination. (In fact, white Americans were likely to favor, not disfavor, African American candidates.)

But presented with a résumé that suggested the applicant had a different political party affiliation to theirs, they had a very strong tendency to engage in discrimination: when choosing between similarly qualified scholarship candidates 4 out of 5 Democrats and Republicans favored an applicant who belonged to the same political party.

Even the overlap between ethnic identity and partisan polarization in the U.S. has weakened in recent years. One reason why Donald Trump was competitive in the 2020 elections is that he significantly increased his 2016 share of the vote among Black, Asian American, and especially Latino voters. A leading reason why Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States is that he won a much higher share of the white vote than Hillary Clinton did. A voter’s racial identity was much less predictive of their voting behavior in 2020 than in 2016.

When I asked McCoy about the difference between the United States and other deeply polarized democracies, she confirmed the stark difference on this point: “Unlike many other polarized democracies, we are not a tribal country based on ethnicity. … The key identity is party, not race or religion.”

If this is America’s uniqueness, then it is at least possible to construct a more hopeful story than the headline findings of the Carnegie report about polarization might suggest. When partisan polarization neatly coincides with ethnic or religious sectarianism, historical experience suggests that only a cultural revolution can overcome the dangerous tensions of yesteryear.

The trouble with RFK Jr.

In the Netherlands, for example, the centuries-old enmity between Catholics and Protestants subsided only as the Dutch people became overwhelmingly secular. When polarization is primarily a matter of partisan political identities, solutions might be achievable by more practical measures and on a shorter timeline. It is at least conceivable that, under such circumstances, institutional reforms or the actions of courageous political leaders could bring the country back from the brink.

One possible scenario for the U.S. would concentrate on institutional reform. At the moment, many congressional districts are gerrymandered, giving incumbents secure majorities, shielding them from competitive primaries and making them hostage to the most ideologically extreme elements of their party base. Some states have attenuated this problem by taking districting out of party-political control. Other changes to our electoral institutions, such as adopting the single transferable vote or creating multimember districts, could also change the incentives now driving the polarization spiral in the country. 

California has already adopted what may be the most modest — and therefore realistic — innovation. In so-called jungle primaries, candidates from all parties compete in the election’s first round; then the top two finishers face off in the second-round general election. As a result, moderates with cross-party appeal get a fighting chance at being elected. And if this works in deep blue states like California, it can also work in deep red states like Alabama.

There is a reason why the soothsayers of doom are in such high demand at the moment. As the headline finding about the U.S. in the new study by Carnegie suggests, the degree of American partisan polarization is undeniably at perilous levels. And the 2024 presidential election, which looms on the horizon ever more menacingly, is almost certain to make things worse. Yet America’s comparative competence at managing its ethnic and religious diversity, which has so far ensured that partisan political identities do not neatly map onto ethnic and religious ones, could be a saving grace. 

The country urgently needs institutional reforms and visionary leaders who can lower the stakes of political competition. The survival of the American Republic may depend on it. But despite the paucity of historical precedent for countries’ coming back from the brink, a process of depolarization in the United States is not unimaginable. The problem is that America’s political partisans may already hate one another too much to take the steps that are necessary to avoid catastrophe.  

Yascha Mounk is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This story appears in the January/February 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.