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Sectarianism in the Divided States of America

Article by Dr Richard Johnson

July 19, 2022

Sectarianism in the Divided States of America

‘Sectarianism’ has traditionally referred to group conflict structured by religious differences, especially within the same faith. Study of the phenomenon has largely been confined to zones with violent conflict, especially the Middle East. In a strict sense, sectarianism is conflict between sects, coming from the Latin ‘secta’ or ‘following’, as in a religion. Yet, religious sects are hardly ever composed of intellectual or doctrinal divisions alone. They often map heavily (if not perfectly) onto ethnic, linguistic, class, and regional lines. Religious doctrine often is only peripheral to sectarian conflict.


Sensitivity to the breadth of identities involved in sectarian divides has led to a more inclusive understanding of the concept ‘sectarianism’. Simon Mabon and his collaborators have offered two conceptual innovations. The first is to widen the geographical scope of the study of sectarianism, which is heavily focused on violent religious conflict in the Middle East. Mabon writes, ‘there is nothing inherently “Middle Eastern” about [sectarianism]’, even if the region ‘undeniably’ is at the centre of many of these discussions.[1] The second is to widen sectarianism to apply to communal, identity-based divisions of all kinds, rather than ones simply focused on religious belief. Sectarian identities are not ‘primordial’ but ‘constructed’. They are ‘malleable entities that are often used for political ends’.[2] Crucially, sectarianism depends on the construction of ‘the other’ which entails ‘dehumanisation and scapegoating for political purposes’.[3]


These alterations to the framework of analysis allow for the inclusion of a case study, which is usually overlooked in the study of sectarianism, yet increasingly bears the hallmarks of a society that is riven by identity-based divisions mobilised for political ends: the United States of America. There is a sizeable (and growing) scholarship about the intense social and political divisions within the United States, yet such discussions are almost entirely separated from the conversation about sectarianism. Sectarianism is seen as something ‘other places’ do. This article disagrees. The United States is now clearly divided between sectae (‘followings’), not necessarily of the religious kind but of a similar fervour. Specifically, partisan identity – whether a person is a ‘Democrat’ or a ‘Republican’ – now shapes how Americans view the world, other Americans, and themselves. Americans have increasingly grown to hate supporters of the other party, viewing their capture of political power as not merely unfortunate but illegitimate.


Partisan identity in America

About 85 per cent of Americans identify as either Republican or Democrat, about the same proportion who say they believe in God.[4] Party identification is roughly evenly split, with a slight edge to Democratic identifiers. Aggregate party identity in the United States is remarkably stable. In spite of all the ructions of the Trump presidency, for example, there was almost no change in the proportion of Americans who identified as Democrat or Republican throughout his four years in office. Individual partisan identity has also been shown to be highly stable in the United States, even when formal party positions on issues might change substantially. Partisanship is not just an expression of voting intention or an historical catalogue of past voting behaviour. Studies in the US show that party identification is overwhelmingly a product of socialisation – family and friends – and tends to remain consistent through life.


Partisan identity shapes how Americans see the world around them. Voters interpret the same objective economic conditions differently depending on whether their party is in power. Voters ‘update’ or change their views on a whole range of issues, including objective facts, once it becomes clear to them what the view of their party is on an issue. This is sometimes called ‘motivated reasoning’, whereby people will tend to invent a rational basis or explanation for something, even if it is inconsistent with the truth, so that it conforms to their prior assumptions or identity.[5] Importantly, consistent with non-US literature on sectarianisation, partisan motivated reasoning can be made more salient and expansive when given stronger elite cues.[6] In other words, elites can exacerbate sectarian difference in the United States – and they regularly do.


Parties are a normal and inescapable feature of democratic politics. There is virtually no political system in the world which lacks parties. Even when parties are formally banned, proxies for parties, such as candidate-centred lists, soon crop up. As in the US today, parties in many other parts of the world are well-sorted along ideological lines. Voters have a clear choice, and it makes sense to structure the party system around coherent policy offers. In itself, partisanship is not something that should cause concern.


What makes the US different, however, is that voters do not simply disagree with people of the opposing party more than they once did; they hate them much more too.[7] Americans sort socially according to party, not just politically. Americans express a clear preference for living among people who vote like they do.[8] They express strong preference to living with, working with, dating, and socialising with people of the same party. Equally, they express stronger aversion to doing any of these things with a supporter of another party. Americans view opposing partisans as not just wrong but also morally degenerate. ‘Feeling thermometers’ are one way in which political scientists gauge the intensity of voters’ sentiments. The more positive a respondent feels to a person or group, the ‘warmer’ they will place themselves on a thermometer (scaled from 0 to 100). Since the 1970s, affection for co-partisans has hovered at about 75 degrees, but sentiments about supporters of the opposing party have dropped from about 50 degrees (neutral) to 25 degrees (cold).


Ideology (policy) can explain this phenomenon only partially. Studies have shown that even when voters are made aware of shared policy outlook with supporters of the opposing party, they still have strongly negative views of supporters of that party. On the other hand, strong partisans can be remarkably ideologically flexible. A study by Lilliana Mason found that Republicans were content to adopt left-of-centre positions, if they were first told that Donald Trump supported those positions.[9] Evidence suggests that partisans are more strongly motivated about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ than the substantive policy gains. People will accept less so long as it means the other group gets even less. This is not just a policy disagreement. It’s about sentiment, feeling, and tribalism.


What is driving this sectarianism?

Negative partisanship – hatred and social disgust towards the other party – is a form of sectarianism. Partisan identity is strong and remarkably stable, but it is, like other kinds of sectarian identity, ultimately constructed. Partisan identity is used to structure and interpret the world. Perhaps most importantly, partisan identity helps generate a clear sense of an ‘other’ group, which is viewed not just as an opponent in a normal political competition but as an enemy to be blocked from power.


Scholars have differed about why there has been a growth in affective polarisation and negative partisanship. Some have blamed the increasingly partisan media environment. Others have blamed social media echo chambers. These communications-focused accounts tend to portray the process as one of media corporations promoting extreme messages, which radicalise voters who then demand greater radicalism from their representatives. Social factors have also been said to be part of this. As people have moved to communities with like-minded people, echo chambers can form and generate suspicion of outsiders.


Other accounts focus on supply-side factors. Politicians have determined that negative partisanship is a powerful motivator and can boost turnout, even amongst an electorate that is cynical about politics. Voters might feel fairly unenthusiastic about all politicians, but even a jaded citizen might vote to stop a morally abhorrent candidate or party from being elected. Additionally, it is said that ordinary voters are increasingly forced to choose more extreme party nominees due to gerrymandering and the increased prevalence of primary elections. In these narrower contests, ideologically extreme candidates are selected by the party faithful and then stand in safe seats (‘the decline of the marginal district’). Voters are given two extreme visions of the parties and this only reinforces stereotypes and negative perceptions.


This article has proposed that comparative sectarianism is a relatively novel framework by which to understand the growing divide within US society. Scholars of sectarianism grapple with similar questions – identity, race, religion, ideology, belonging, etc. – and consider its implications for politics – inclusion, democracy, and minority rights. Yet, very little of the literature applies this concept to the US case, and it is overwhelmingly dominated by religious themes. While acknowledging the importance of this intellectual context, some of these approaches can be carried over into an analysis of the United States. It is hoped that by seeing negative partisanship as a case of sectarianism rather than simply policy disagreement can help explain other worrying developments in US politics, such as the willingness of political actors to breach established rules and norms to prevent the ‘other side’ from gaining power. In this light, the events of 6th January 2021, to overthrow the US presidential election, become more explicable, if not any less concerning.


Dr Richard Johnson is Lecturer in US Politics & Policy at Queen Mary, University of London. He researches race, elections, and policymaking in the United States. He has published peer-review articles on voting rights, school segregation, racial coalitions, campaign finance, and social media. He is the author of The End of the Second Reconstruction: Obama, Trump, and the Crisis of Civil Rights (Polity, 2020) and US Foreign Policy: Domestic Roots and International Impact (Bristol, 2021).


[1] Mabon, Simon. Sectarianism Beyond the Middle East. Religion, State, & Society 49, no. 2, (2021): 174-280.

[2] Mabon, Simon and Lucia Ardovini, Lucia. People Sects, and States: Interrogating Sectarianism in the Contemporary Middle East. Global Discourse 6, no. 4, (2016): 551-560.

[3] Ardonivi, Lucia. The Politicisation of Sectarianism in Egypt: Creating an Enemy. Global Discourse 6, no. 4, (2016): 579-600.

[4] Lydia Saad and Zach Hyrnowski, How Many Americans Believe in God?, Gallup, 2017,

[5] Lodge, Milton and Charles Taber, Charles. 2013. The Rationalizing Voter. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[6] Mabon, Simon. Desectarianization: Looking Beyond the Sectarianization of Middle Eastern Politics. Review of Faith and International Affairs 17, no. 4, (2019): 23-35. Bisgaard, Martin and Slothus, Rune. Partisan Elites as Culprits? How Party Cues Shape Partisan Perceptual Gaps. American Journal of Political Science 62, no. 2 (2018), 456-469.

[7] Inyengar, Shanto, Sood, Gaurav & Lelkes, Yphtach. Affect, Not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization. Public Opinion Quarterly 76, no. 3, (2012): 405-431. Iyengar, Shanto and Krupenkin, Masha. The Strengthening of Partisan Affect. Advances in Political Psychology 39, no. 1, (2018): 201-218.

[8] Hui, Iris. Who Is Your Preferred Neighbor? Partisan Residential Preferences and Neighborhood Satisfaction. American Politics Research 41, no. 6, 2013: 997-1021. Gimpel, James and Hui, Iris. Political Fit as a Component of Neighborhood Preference and Satisfaction. City & Community 17, no. 3, (2018): 883-905.

[9] Mason, Lilliana. 2018. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago, US: University of Chicago Press. Barber, Michael and Pope, Jeremy. Does Party Trump Ideology?. American Political Science Review, (2019): 113:1.

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