Polarization and Division

Polarization has always been a feature of American politics but is now entering a new and dangerous phase not seen for generations. Emerging evidence shows that increasingly, polarization in the U.S. may be more accurately understood as a social identity issue, similar to the way Sunnis and Shias or Israelis and Palestinians perceive one another — in other words, as enemy tribes that represent threat, where the other side’s political gain is seen as a major risk to your identity and value system. Simultaneously, Republicans and Democrats have become more geographically segregated and clustered, sorting themselves into like-minded communities and like-minded information bubbles.

This fundamental divide in perception and daily experience represents a crisis of American political, civic, and cultural life that is preventing the compromise to address substantive policy issues, increasing already significant alienation and mistrust of large segments of the American public from Congress, the executive branch and other institutions of government. This divide is further undermining democratic institutions, crushing the civic discourse that sustains them, increasing the risk of political and social violence, and leading to elections of populist candidates that further exacerbates this tension. Because of these risks, we feel it is an urgent imperative to reduce this polarization, not only at home but also abroad, given the global implications that this internal fracturing has on global security and violent social conflict.

In the coming months, the Beyond Conflict Innovation Lab will develop new ways of understanding, tracking, and measuring polarization in the United States, improve and evaluate existing dialogue initiatives aimed at bridging the divide at various levels, and partner with social media platforms to develop evidence-based ways of neutralizing the informational echo chambers that intensify polarization.