I winced at the editorial cartoon Friday in The Washington Post, All the Republican Rats: state attorneys general and U.S. Congress members all named and depicted as street rats for “collaborating with President Trump in his attempt to subvert the Constitution and stay in office.”
I winced because a couple of days before I had read Thomas Edsall’s New York Times online column, America – We Have a Problem. Edsall is a particularly talented political journalist. For 25 years he reported on national political affairs for the Post. Since 2011 he has contributed a column to the Times’ website.
Edsall related the gist of an article that appeared in the Policy Forum section of Science magazine in October. In Political Sectarianism is America, fifteen political scientists at various major research universities wrote that “The severity of political conflict has grown increasingly divorced from the magnitude of policy disagreement” to the extent that a new term was required to describe the phenomenon.
Political sectarianism, they suggested, drawing a parallel with more familiar construct of religious sectarianism, is “the tendency to adopt a moralized identification with one political group and against another.” Three core ingredients characterize political sectarianism:
othering – the tendency to view opposing partisans as essentially different or alien to oneself; aversion – the tendency to dislike and distrust opposing partisans; and moralization – the tendency to view opposing partisans as iniquitous. It is the confluence of these ingredients that makes sectarianism so corrosive in the political sphere.
I have my doubts about whether political sectarianism has been overtaking the United States, but it certainly exists, and I know it when I see it. Herblock, the great editorial cartoonist of the Post from the 1950s until he died in 2001, famously depicted Richard Nixon as emerging from a sewer, but never, I think, as anything other than human.
Humanists – politicians, lawyers, business folk, religious and civic leaders, community organizers, journalists, artists, historians – will gradually get us out of the present situation. In the meantime, newspaper editorial cartoonists should show restraint.