Political Sectarianism is Serious, But There’s Room For Optimism

Alex Christy
5 min readApr 20, 2021

Over at the New York Times, Nate Cohn has a sobering piece where he argues that political sectarianism is an increasing danger to American democracy. Political sectarianism is not just that Republicans and Democrats are increasingly more ideologically polarized, but that they increasingly hate each other and view each other as not just wrong, but evil. While Cohn’s warning is not without its merits, some a more optimistic approach may not only be better for our collective well-being, but also have the added benefit of being true.

To take just one example, Cohn notes that Americans, “tell pollsters they wouldn’t want their child to marry an opposing partisan.” While this can be prove Cohn’s thesis, but it also completely normal and healthy for couples to share common values.

But, still love can still transcend lines and the heart wants what the heart wants. Another New York Times article, this one written in 2019 by political science professors Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan gives more room for optimism as it recounts a study they did on the same question. But, their study had a twist:

we added a new piece of information to this question, which said how often that new in-law would talk about politics. When people learned that their future in-law would rarely discuss politics, fewer than 30 percent said that they would be unhappy with an in-law from the opposing party. On the other hand, when we specified that the hypothetical in-law would never shut up about politics — he or she would interrupt social gatherings and holidays with the latest Trump dirt from MSNBC or Hannity tirade from Fox — more than 40 percent of people would be unhappy with the marriage.

In other words, we view ourselves as the normal ones, but our perception of the other party is based off of what we see and what see are the cranks on cable news or on Twitter, not the person on Facebook who only posts funny cat videos, but who just happens to vote for the other party.

Another cause for optimism is that Cohn’s assessment of how Donald Trump has affected all of this:

And perhaps most significant, Republicans made the choice in 2016 to abandon laissez-faire economics and neoconservative foreign policy and embrace sectarianism all at once and in one package: Donald J. Trump. The G.O.P. primaries that year were a referendum on whether it was easier to appeal to conservatives with conservative policy or by stoking sectarian animosity. Sectarianism won.

This is more of a description of Trump’s failed 2020 campaign than his successful 2016 one. The 2016 GOP Primary may seem like a lifetime ago and unfortunately that that has led to some revisionism influenced by what came after. In 2016, despite having several uncontested primaries towards the end, Trump only received 44.95% of the popular vote (for comparison, in 2020 Joe Biden got 51.79% in the Democratic Primary). He was able to win because a crowded fielded and the fact that Republicans, more than Democrats, are comfortable with winner-take-all contests.

Cohn is right to say that the sectarian wing of the GOP supported Trump. Often these people are referred to as those who are simply interested in performative lib ownage, but that is not the only faction that supported him.

Typically, Republican presidential wannabees brag about how many federal departments they are going to eliminate, but Trump did not do this. He was not the radical budget slasher or professional pro-lifer that “the base” would have liked. That man was Ted Cruz. Trump meanwhile was also therefore the candidate for the moderates as can be seen in the map where Trump cleaned up in GOP primaries in dark blue states, but struggled in traditionally red ones.

As for Trump’s 2016 general election campaign, the party, as all parties do, put aside primary animosities and rallied behind the nominee. The Never Trump movement was never more than the usual party switchers that occurs every election. It only seemed larger because they were disproportionately members of the commentariat.

Trump in 2016 had a message: Washington was a swamp and needed an outsider to fix it. America had seen better days and if we want happy days to be here again, then a disruption of business as usual can be a good thing. Additionally, he benefited from the typical pendulum swing of power. He was also helped by Hillary Clinton who ran a terrible campaign. While Trump was talking about making America great again, she was talking about herself with a heavy emphasis on the “her.” Sure, Trump was an outsider, but voters decided to give him a chance.

That was Trump in 2016, but Trump in 2020 was very different. After Trump won, Trump got high off his own supply and believed what people were telling him about how he was a political genius who showed the stupid Republican establishment how to win and that he represented the voice of millions of forgotten Americans who live in-between the coasts.

Trump’s response to all this was not to be the President of the United States, but to be the President of the MAGAverse. If his tweets, insults, rants, and other Trumpian personality traits upset Never Trumpers, Democrats, professional bureaucrats, and the news media — the collective swamp — then he was was simply doing what he was elected to do.

By 2020, Trump was not the blank slate you could vote for and hope for the best, he had a record. The office had not humbled him. Sure, the pandemic may have had something to do with his loss, but when you make being an unrepentant jerk as part of your appeal to your supporters, it also becomes what people who do not support you hate about you. As it specifically relates to independents, there’s a reason they are independents and that is they do not care for the Republican versus Democrat food fights that dominate headlines, but those food fights were all Trump and his sectarian supporters cared about and they actively sought them out.

If you were to ask the Biden campaign why they won, they would tell you that while Trump lived for Twitter, they realized there was entire country outside of it. While Trump appeared to deliberately shrink his base of appeal on the theory that a smaller base would be more motivated, Biden appealed to voters with his own version of making America great again.

In another New York Times article Krupnikov and Ryan note that only 15–20% of Americans follow politics intensely. There are over 200 million adults in this country and at any given point on a normal news day, no more than 8 or 9 million of them are watching CNN, MSNBC, and Fox at any given time. The fact that these people have megaphones and profit on getting people to hate each other is not great for the country, but it likely is not a death sentence for democracy either.



Alex Christy

Writing about politics and other interesting things. Contributing Writer to NewsBusters. Member of YAF’s National Journalism Center’s Spring 2019 class.