This is the fifth post in “Complicating the Narrative on Bridging and Division,” a six-part blog series from CEP and PACE (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement). This series seeks to highlight community-informed perspectives from five leaders in the build-up to the second event in CEP’s 20th Anniversary Virtual Learning Sessions: “Are We Better Off Divided? Philanthropy’s Role in Moving America Forward.”

The national tragedy surrounding the January 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol and its aftermath demonstrated the destructive potential of polarization in America. It has evolved into a singularly virulent and dangerous phenomenon.

Three months before the U.S. Capitol incursion, researchers from Northwestern, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and seven additional universities documented how America’s polarized tribalism has metastasized into “political sectarianism,” an even more virulent phenomenon sharing attributes with religious sectarianism. The characteristics of political sectarianism are othering (seeing opponents as alien), aversion (deeply distrusting and disliking the other), and moralization (the attribution of wickedness and even criminality to the other).

Political sectarianism, the researchers write, leads to people “vastly overestimating” their differences with others. In a conflict we’ve moralized, for example, we experience opponents to be “more socially distant, ideologically extreme, politically engaged, contemptuous, and uncooperative than is actually the case.”

Thinking that polarization is “as bad as it can get” constitutes a failure of imagination. America is likely only at the beginning of this journey; absent intervention, we’re headed toward national violence and tragedy. Acting quickly and decisively, however, funders can help to prevent that from happening.

Read the full article about bridging divides by David Eisner at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.