The space between us threatens to swallow us whole
Social distance, affective polarization, and partisan mega-identities are helping to unravel the fabric of American democray
Americans are growing further apart, with no real stop in sight.
It is not so much our (asymmetric!) policy or ideological polarization that concerns me today. Much of the issue-based divide between parties has been overstated, at least among the voters themselves. Instead, political scientists seem to be worried about the consequences of rising sorting and polarization in our identities.
That’s because Americans’ overwhelmingly negative feelings towards members of the other party are clearly becoming more consequential. Evaluations of the out-party now shape many aspects of citizens’ day-to-day lives, the partisan gradient subsuming everything from their choices for medical care (eg during covid-19) to who parents will allow their kids to marry to belief in the core tenants of liberal democracy (eg fueling the January 6 riot). Our growing social distance is not alone in causing America’s problems, but it has laid the groundwork for these threats to democracy to exist and persist.
The resulting political factionalism, several political scientists suggest to me, in both institutions and among the masses, is the grave threat of our time.