Have America's much-discussed political tensions reached a point of no return? Political tribalists who sort their lives along partisan lines and despise opponents have become regular features of national life. But now researchers say polarization can reach a "tipping point" at which external threats, such as pandemics, no longer drive people together but instead become further sources of strife that spiral out of control. Their warning comes as Americans seem poised to further escalate disagreements into open violence.
"We see this very disturbing pattern in which a shock brings people a little bit closer initially, but if polarization is too extreme, eventually the effects of a shared fate are swamped by the existing divisions and people become divided even on the shock issue," Boleslaw Szymanski of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute told Cornell University interviewers. Szymanski is a co-author of "Polarization and Tipping Points," published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He added: "If we reach that point, we cannot unite even in the face of war, climate change, pandemics, or other challenges to the survival of our society."
The authors of the paper wanted to know why the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than pushing Americans to cooperate on a common threat, instead became yet another reason for disagreement. They created a model to study the effects of party identity and political intolerance.
"We found that polarization increases incrementally only up to a point," according to Cornell's Michael Macy, who led the study. "Above this point, there is a sudden change in the very fabric of the institution, like the change from water to steam when the temperature exceeds the boiling point."
The result, according to the study, is "a hard-to-predict critical point beyond which polarization becomes unlikely to reverse."
Models aren't real life, of course. But the researchers were inspired by real-life developments—developments so concerning that the issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which the paper was published was devoted to the dynamics of political polarization. After all, we live in a country in which people sort lifestyles, recreational preferences, and careers by partisan affiliation.
"Consider, also, the growing segregation in our places of work. The academy increasingly skews to the left, especially so in liberal arts departments and among staff. Cattle ranchers, loggers, dentists, and surgeons skew right," points out the University of Michigan's Scott Page in the same publication.
Such political sorting applies to the military, too, severely limiting its utility in the country's domestic disputes, no matter that some officeholders think that B-52s are the solution to political disagreements. Just two weeks ago, three anti-Trump retired Army generals warned that Americans shouldn't look to troops to suppress escalating political strife.
"The potential for a total breakdown of the chain of command along partisan lines — from the top of the chain to squad level — is significant should another insurrection occur," Paul Eaton, Antonio Taguba, and Steven Anderson wrote in the Washington Post. "Under such a scenario, it is not outlandish to say a military breakdown could lead to civil war."
"Civil war" sounds like an unlikely fate for an established democracy where the population's image of the concept is tied up in images of field armies in blue and gray uniforms. But no country is any more stable than the moment allows, and internal conflicts can be far messier than even the war that marked the mid-19th century.
"We actually know now that the two best predictors of whether violence is likely to happen are, whether a country is an anocracy, and that's a fancy term for a partial democracy, and whether ethnic entrepreneurs have emerged in a country that are using racial, religious, or ethnic divisions to try to gain political power," Professor Barbara Walter of the University of California at San Diego told CNN last week. "And the amazing thing about the United States is that both of these factors currently exist, and they have emerged at a surprisingly fast rate."
Walter serves on the CIA's Political Instability Task Force, which assesses the health of countries around the world. The task force isn't allowed to turn its gaze on its home country, but Walter did so on her own (she has a book on the topic coming out in January).
"The United States is pretty close to being at high risk of civil war," she concluded.
That said, and on a more positive note, just as the stability of a country isn't written in stone, neither is its descent into chaos. The authors of "Polarization and Tipping Points" emphasize that they "make no claims about the model's predictive accuracy." Likewise, retired generals Eaton, Taguba, and Anderson, as well as Walter can't know what is to come, they can only point to warning signs that have them concerned. We don't have to live up to the worst expectations.
While America's dominant political factions seem determined, like two kids in the back of a car, to poke and prod each other until they come to blows, the solution, as in that road trip to hell, might be to separate the parties without allowing either one the upper hand. Both the thuggish nationalism of Republicans and the elitist presumption of Democrats are authoritarian prescriptions best reserved for true believers, with the rest of us left to run our own lives as we please.
The election of Joe Biden to the presidency on promises of normalcy after the Trump years, promises which were promptly broken, indicates that Americans have some appetite for a less extreme and intrusive brand of governance. Unfortunately, 2020 was a lost opportunity to separate the feuding factions, and instead we traded one brand of overreach for another. Pushback against progressive excess in 2021's off-year elections looked like another attempt by the public to achieve a little balance, or at least to escape the ambitions of a faction that wants to transform society to suit its vision, other people's preferences be damned. The question is whether that pushback will be enough to avert a collapse into conflict.
"The process resembles a meltdown in a nuclear reactor," Cornell's Macy said of his tipping point research. "If the temperature goes critical, there is a runaway reaction that cannot be stopped. Our study shows that something very similar can happen in a 'political reactor.'"
If we're smart, the U.S. won't be the test case for that hypothesis. Assuming that Americans can learn to leave each other alone, we won't have to discover what it means to pass a national point of no return.