There might be a "tipping point" where political disagreements become so divisive that no issue can unite Republicans and Democrats again, according to a study released by researchers at Cornell University, Study Finds reported Tuesday.
Extreme polarization becomes so irreversible, according to the findings, that even an attack by a foreign enemy or the emergence of a major disease would not help close the political divide.
The study's lead author Michael Macy, director of the Social Dynamics Laboratory in the College of Arts and Sciences, explained in a university release that the threat itself becomes yet another polarizing issue instead of a source of unity.
"We found that polarization increases incrementally only up to a point," Macy added. "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."
Results of the model the researchers constructed indicate that at any level below the "critical point" of polarization, the researchers could reverse the political divisiveness by toning down their control parameters, according to Study Finds.
However, once political polarization reaches this tipping point, the authors of the study were not able to ease the unrest no matter what variables they switched.
"The process resembles a meltdown in a nuclear reactor," Macy explained. "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.'"
He continued "the voters are like the nuclear technicians. It's up to us to bring the political temperature back down before it is too late."
Study co-author Boleslaw Szymanski, director of the Army Research Laboratory Network Science and Technology Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, added, "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."
He added, "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."
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