Reviews | How to know when your country has passed the point of no return

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Their response :

Political processes, like any other natural dynamic process, in nature, technology or society, have the capacity to nourish themselves and enter into an unstable or self-reinforcing positive feedback loop. A classic example is an explosion: when thermal energy is supplied to burn a few molecules of a combustible substance, they in turn produce more energy, which burns more molecules, producing more energy in a loop without end, at least until the fuel is no longer available.

A similar process can take place in politics, they argue:

For example, elected officials may respond to signals from extremist donors by becoming more extreme themselves. When these extremist representatives become party leaders, they are then able to punish the moderates in their party by supporting the most extremist candidates in the primaries. This in turn leads to the election of more extremist candidates and the cycle continues.

In theory, voters

are a potential brake on this cascading extremism, but they must be prepared to punish ideologically extreme lawmakers by removing them from power. As voters became more concerned with party labels than ideology, they became less willing to do so, allowing cascading extremism to continue.

What about the Democratic Party, I asked?

Democrats are indeed still below the tipping point; therefore, their state of polarization always changes slowly, or linearly. But looking at the current trend in political mood and projecting our model slightly into the future, the current big political mood shift on the left due to the Trump era could easily cause Democrats to adjust their ideological behavior to the left. ‘self-reinforcement and let them pass their polarization. tipping point.

The good news, continued the five authors, “is that the Democratic Party is still very in control of its trajectory.”

Leonard and his co-authors are concerned about the future of the Republican Party:

Even if Republican voters suddenly decide to start punishing extremists in their party, so many other parts of the political process – interest groups, right-wing media, donors – encourage and reinforce extremism that we believe would have little effect. effect. In fact, Republican leaders would most likely stop listening to Republican voters or ignore the election altogether. Indeed, this is already happening.

In “Polarization and Tipping Points,” Macy, along with Manqing Ma, Daniel R. Tabin, Jianxi Gao, and Boleslaw K. Szymanski, all from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, map the risks of escalating partisan hostility:

the existence of a tipping point beyond which the activation of shared interests can no longer bring warring factions closer together, even in the face of a common threat. Our interest in this issue is driven by a series of crises that could activate a broad political identity and a unified response: the Great Recession, Russian electoral interference, an impending climate catastrophe, a global pandemic and, most recently, January 6. . .Attack on the US Congress.

As partisanship becomes a central part of voter identity and voters adopt policies consistent with their party, polarization reaches new and threatening heights, say Macy and her four co-authors. In an email, Macy wrote:

The most likely result of growing polarization is political paralysis in which parties are more interested in preventing the other party from winning than in solving problems. We’ve even heard politicians feel so emboldened that they can publicly acknowledge that their goal is obstruction, not problem solving. This is the most likely result of extreme polarization. A less likely but more frightening outcome is that partisan animosity against the opposition becomes so intense that each side now sees the other as “traitors” or “enemies of the people”. When this happens, the party in power may feel justified in changing the rules of the game to prevent the other party from being able to hold them accountable.

An RPI report on the Macy newspaper quotes Szymanski:

We see this very disturbing pattern in which a shock brings people a bit closer at first, but if the polarization is too extreme, the effects of a shared fate end up being overwhelmed by the existing divisions and people even become divided on the issue. shock.

“If we reach this point,” Szymanski added, “we cannot unite even in the face of war, climate change, pandemics or other challenges for the survival of our society.”

I asked Szymanski to describe the nature of a tipping point which, when triggered, would prevent a return to traditional democratic norms. He replied by email:

In our democracy, the tipping point is reached when all discussions of divisive issues take place in polarized groups and none between groups, for then neither differences can be resolved nor we can accept to be. at variance.

In “Partisanship Mediated Interindividual Cooperation Complicates Madison’s Cure for ‘Faction Mischief’,” Mari Kawakatsu, Simon A. Levin and Corina E. Tarnita, all of Princeton, and Yphtach Lelkes of Penn argue that the strategy base developed by one of the nation’s founders to curb destructive partisan divisions no longer works. The phrase they refer to in the title of their article comes from Madison’s famous argument in Federalist Paper No. 10 that the pluralistic character of a country as large and diverse as the United States allows the nation to counter “the misdeeds of factions. “

The potential of the majority to exercise tyrannical dominance diminishes as “you take into account a greater variety of parties and interests,” Madison wrote, making it “less likely that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens. ; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and act in unison with one another.

Kawakatsu and his colleagues argue that in theory, contemporary trends should favor Madison’s strategy:

Potentially driven by increasing educational attainment, nationalization of politics, and changes in the information environment, the number of issues people care about and consider in the field of national politics has dramatically increased . Despite this trend, and the attendant expectation that an abundance of problems will improve collective cohesion by decreasing the likelihood of monoliths, the polarization is significantly worse.

How did it happen?

“One potential explanation for this paradox is the decreasing dimensionality of question space,” Kawakatsu and colleagues write. “In other words, although the number of problems has increased, the opinions of individuals on these problems can be so strongly correlated with their political ideology that in reality there are only one or two dimensions of the problem. . In other words, members of both parties have increasingly embraced the beliefs and positions of their supporters, effectively eliminating cross-cutting interests, leaving the only salient split between Democrats and Republicans.

When partisan bias is extreme, the authors write,

individuals become completely closed to the influence of ideologically divergent peers, and emerging tribalism stimulates inter-individual cooperation at the cost of a weakened and polarized collective. This suggests that, in a highly polarized state, there will be an emerging tension between the individual and collective levels, with little incentive for individuals to reduce collective polarization.

Kawakatsu’s article draws on the work of Paul Pierson and Eric Schickler, political scientists at Berkeley, who wrote the 2020 essay “Madison’s Constitution Under Stress: A Developmental Analysis of Political Polarization” and the November book chapter 2021 “Polarization and the Durability of Madisonian Controls and Sales.

In the chapter, Pierson and Schickler write:

Our two-party system is based on a structural decentralization of political authority. Yet the emergence of hyper-partisan means that the presidential control over authoritarian developments that the Madisonian system relies on most, Congress, may not work. Instead, GOP members of Congress in particular face multiple inducements to take the train rather than resist. Among these incentives are the intense preferences of party interest groups, the strongly “red” and negatively partisan electoral bases of these politicians, and the likelihood that influential partisan media will demand a very high price for defection.

Given these realities, Pierson and Schickler continue,

The development perspective that we propose raises a disturbing perspective: under conditions of hyperpolarization, with the associated changes in meso-institutional arrangements and the growth of tribalism, the Madisonian institutions of the United States may make it more vulnerable to democratic retreat as many other wealthy democracies would be.

In an email, Pierson wrote:

Today, the polarization is self-reinforcing. Most of this decentralization has disappeared – state parties are more linked to national parties; so are many very powerful interest groups; the media too (especially for the GOP). Everything is fed into the existing dividing lines rather than producing something transversal. The defection of his party’s “team” becomes more difficult to contemplate because the team’s victory has become so important, and the defection is more likely to lead to quick retaliation. There is nothing in the system that “brings it together” or disrupts the dividing lines. This is really new to the United States (although there are parallels to the 1850s, when politics nationalized around a single problem). It is in a very real sense a new and quite different political system.

A CNN survey from Aug. 3 to Sept. 7 of 2,119 people shows the different ways Democrats and Republicans are responding to emerging threats to democracy.


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