America’s Divisions May Have Passed the Tipping Point

If we can’t learn to leave each other alone, the country may have a violent meltdown.

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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.

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  1. Through the generations enemies of the republic have been allowed to weaponize the freedoms in order to turn the republic into what it is now and what it will become while the populace, for the most part, remained and remains ignorant of the destruction going on around them.

  2. I believe I heard it from Dr. Dave Janda…do not vote/view from the point of Democrat vs Republican nor Left vs Right, rather approach Liberty vs Tyranny. We’ve all been under a psyop attack for decades and compassion to our neighbors who may have a different view is good.

  3. If it comes to a civil war it will be bloody and extremely horrible. I pray that we the people will realize that all this division has been brought on by politicians (both parties) and big corporations. We have allowed these people to pervert our government and country for power and financial gain. These people do not care about the American citizens, they think they know best and are not held accountable for any thing they do. I for one think we should stop thinking of ourselves as a political party, but as free American citizens who have a constitution and rights that no one including the president on down to state officials can take away from us. Tipping point of losing our rights and country??? I for one will not give in, give up or give out on my country , constitution. We are not perfect but we are still the best in the world. AND I think there is many Americans out there that feel the same.

    • Boris Badenov says

      Hrb, I think you can include religion going WOKE in this. Black Pastors pushing the Black Theology, instead of God words, the various denominations embracing every WOKE line of nonsense that comes around, even the Evangelical Lutheran Church has gone WOKE. You have people that state that they ‘hate’ Trump and can’t articulate WHY except for ‘mean tweets’, OH GROW UP!

      People are slowly waking up you see in in a common metric, firearm sales, they’ve been increasing, people are afraid.

      Big business, as you’ve stated doesn’t give a rats azz about the little guy, they could care less and their bought and paid for politicians are in the same boat, as long as they get re-elected they don’t much care.

      This may not end well, cancel that, it won’t end well and we can thank Comrade Faucet and his rich masters as well as Obama and his sycophants for it.

  4. If this does not improve the U.S. will be facing another civil war. Foreign powers (China, Russia) are encouraging everyone being at each other’s throats in this country to suit their geopolitical aims. The media and tech are stoking the fires (both sides). Family members are disowned if they don’t agree with a certain political viewpoint. In the old days we used to just tell our proselytizing opposite-party relative to change the subject and pass the potatoes. Part of it is because there is no country anymore, no America, no U.S.A., only a globalization and ethnic separatism without assimilation. The rule by liberal elites (who are running Joe Biden) is an autocratic one; there is only a single truth, only one side of the story can be told. It’s up to the individual to try to make a difference within their own family, their near neighbors, to keep civility going as long as possible.

  5. Bruce, you put it very well. Thank you.

  6. How is that Biden presidency working out for you “PATHETIC” LIBTARDS?? 2022 AND 2024 WILL BE THE WORSE IN HISTORY FOR THE SOCIALIST COMMUNISTS DEMOSHITS…JAIL TIME IS IN YOUR FUTURES….All COMPLIMENTS OF BRAIN DEAD BIDEN….Obama was right about one thing….Joe could and did SCREW IT ALL UP…

  7. The tyranny of the Muslim factions has already reached that tipping point. Look at the words of the squad and support from overseas middle east activists.

    The tipping point is close with the BLM types and their casting to the waters of the Communist Left…

    The question becomes one is the open border with the drugs, criminals, and illegals going to be enough to stop these latin thugs from continued crime and actions against the nation?

    The Biden/radical Socialist agenda is killing the economy in what appears to be the intent to allow dictatorship and destruction to take hold.

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