News Release

‘Tipping point’ makes partisan polarization irreversible

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Cornell University

ITHACA, N.Y. – As polarization has escalated in the U.S., the question of if and when that divide becomes insurmountable has become ever more pressing. In a new study, “Polarization and Tipping Points” published Dec. 7 in PNAS, researchers have identified a tipping point, beyond which extreme polarization becomes irreversible.

The researchers employed a predictive model of a polarized group, similar to the current U.S. Senate, to reveal what can happen when the country faces an attack by a foreign adversary or a global pandemic.

“Instead of uniting against a common threat, the threat itself becomes yet another polarizing issue,” said first author Michael Macy, professor of sociology and director of the Social Dynamics Laboratory at Cornell University.

The model allows researchers to study the effects of party identity and political intolerance on ideological extremism and partisan division. “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.”

“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, 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.”

Below the critical point in the level of polarization, the researchers found that the upward trend in polarization would reverse when the researchers dialed down the control parameters. But once the level of polarization reached a critical point, the control parameters no longer had any effect and the dynamics could not be reversed, even in response to a common threat.

“The process resembles a meltdown in a nuclear reactor,” Macy said. “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 that something very similar can happen in a ‘political reactor.’ The voters are like the nuclear technicians. It’s up to us to bring the political temperature back down before it is too late,” Macy said.

Manqing Ma, Daniel R. Tabin and Jianxi Gao of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute were co-authors on the paper. The research was supported by the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory, the National Science Foundation and the Rensselaer-IBM Artificial Intelligence Research Collaboration.

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