Political polarization in U.S. may be reaching an irreversible ‘tipping point’

ITHACA, N.Y. — Talking politics during the holidays can turn family gatherings into hostile debates very fast. While most people eventually forgive and forget these political disagreements, is there a point of no return where Americans can no longer co-exist with each other? A new study by researchers at Cornell University finds there may be an actual “tipping point” where no issue imaginable can unite Republicans and Democrats again.

Their findings reveal that at this point, extreme polarization becomes irreversible. The team’s predictive model for measuring the behavior of a polarized political group — like the current U.S. Senate — shows that even an attack by a foreign power or another pandemic would not heal the political divide.

“Instead of uniting against a common threat, the threat itself becomes yet another polarizing issue,” says lead author Michael Macy, director of the Social Dynamics Laboratory in the College of Arts and Sciences, in a university release.

“We found that polarization increases incrementally only up to a point,” Macy adds. “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.”

Division and extremism pull political bodies apart

Researchers say their work builds on an earlier political model that study co-author Boleslaw Szymanski created to examine the two-party political system. That model looked at 30 years of Congressional voting records, correctly predicting the shift in political polarization among 28 out of 30 U.S. Congresses.

The new model simulates the behavior of 100 politicians within a legislature (like the Senate) who have varying opinions on 10 extremely divisive issues, including gun control and abortion. Over time, the model shows that lawmakers shift their positions on issues according to the influence of like-minded allies and arguments with partisan opponents.

The team also manipulated their “control parameters” to see how political intolerance, party identity, and the strength of an outside threat impacts the political system. At each mile marker in time, the Cornell model recorded two specific measures of political polarization: partisan division and ideological extremism.

Study authors describe political division as the typical differences of opinion between each party. Meanwhile, the model calculated the level of extremism based on the range of far left and right-wing positions lawmakers have on a particular issue.

America’s ‘political reactor’ is going critical

Results show that at any level below the “critical point” of polarization, the researchers could reverse the political unrest by dialing down their control parameters. However, once political polarization reaches this tipping point, the study authors failed to ease the unrest no matter what variables they changed. This even includes the national response to a common threat, like war or disease.

“The process resembles a meltdown in a nuclear reactor,” Macy explains. “Up to a point, technicians can bring the core temperature back down by increasing the flow of water used to cool the reactor. But 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.’ The voters are like the nuclear technicians. It’s up to us to bring the political temperature back down before it is too late.”

“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,” adds Szymanski, director of the Army Research Laboratory Network Science and Technology Center (NeST) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “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 study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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