Computer Science researchers at Cornel University and the Polytechnic Institute say that polarization in the USA is getting so severe, that even another 9/11 type event could fail to unite the country the way it did twenty years ago. The researchers looked at political and ideological polarization throughout the history of the USA and created a predictive computer model.
Our study was motivated by a highly disturbing puzzle. Confronted with a deadly global pandemic that threatened not only massive loss of life but also the collapse of our medical system and economy, why were we unable to put partisan divisions aside and unite in a common cause, similar to the national mobilization in the Great Depression and the Second World War? We used a computational model to search for an answer in the phase transitions of political polarization. The model reveals asymmetric hysteresis trajectories with tipping points that are hard to predict and that make polarization extremely difficult to reverse once the level exceeds a critical value.
“We found that polarization increases incrementally only up to a point,” Macy said. “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 dynamics resemble what physicists call “hysteresis loops.”
“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,” said co-author Boleslaw Szymanski, a professor of computer science and 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.”