If COVID-19 can’t foster political unity, what can?

Bitter fighting continues in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, even as President-elect Joe Biden urged unity in his victory speech Saturday night.

Michael Macy, professor of sociology and information science at Cornell University and director of the Social Dynamics Laboratory, teaches a class on polarization and tribal politics. He says the polarization of the United States may have crossed a tipping point, illustrated by even a deadly pandemic’s inability to foster unity.

“Our nation has been polarized before over slavery, labor’s right to organize, and civil rights. Nevertheless, the country eventually came together to address a mutual threat, such as the Great Depression, fascist aggression, and competition with the former Soviet Union.

“Ten years ago, pundits would surely have predicted that Democrats and Republicans would have come together against a global pandemic with the potential – now already happening – to kill millions of people worldwide. Instead, our best defenses while waiting for a vaccine have become new tribal symbols. That is an alarm bell that polarization may have crossed a tipping point.

“President-elect Biden’s call for bipartisan cooperation to address the pandemic and its economic hardships will be an important test of whether an irreversible tipping point has indeed been crossed. His strong personal relationships with many Republicans lend credibility to his conciliatory appeal and will make it harder for Mitch McConnell to stonewall without appearing obstructionist, callous and unpatriotic. At the same time, President Trump’s refusal to concede makes it harder for McConnell to publicly embrace bipartisan cooperation.

“Trump can be expected to continue to stoke the fires long after he leaves the White House, and that will leave Republicans with a difficult choice: move back to the political center or to become even more extreme. Unfortunately, the failure of voters to repudiate Trump at the polls will likely strengthen the voices of polarization. The tipping point may now be in our rearview mirror.”

For media inquiries, contact Linda Glaser, news & media relations manager, lbg37@cornell.edu, 607-255-8942

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