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  • Ryan Wittler

Political Polarization in the U.S. May Have a “Tipping Point”

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As political polarization is on the rise in the U.S., a new Cornell University study has identified a critical “tipping point,” beyond which polarization likely becomes irreversible.

Some highlights:

The researchers used a predictive model to simulate the behavior of 100 members of a legislature (like the U.S. Senate) with polarized positions on 10 divisive issues (e.g., gun control, abortion, etc.).

The team employed the model to reveal how the group would react in the face of an attack from a foreign adversary or a global pandemic, and the results weren’t great.

According to the researchers, their model showed that rather than unifying against the common threat, “the threat itself becomes yet another polarizing issue.”

It also happens incrementally, as the model showed members’ opinions could be pushed and pulled based on the parameters the researchers set. If the team kept the level of polarization below a certain point, they could reverse it, beyond that, it was all bets off.

“Political reactor”:

While describing the point at which manipulating the parameters simply didn’t matter, lead author Michael Macy likened it to “a meltdown in a nuclear reactor.”

“Up to a point, technicians can bring the core temperature back down by increasing the flow of water used to cool the reactor. But if the temperature goes critical, there is a runaway reaction that cannot be stopped. Our study shows something similar can happen in a ‘political reactor.’”

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