Neal Milner: Biden's Job Will Be To Chip Away At Sectarian Hatred - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


The U.S. has become a sectarian society with the depth of differences resembling those of the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq or the Catholics and Protestants during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Sectarianism, though, does not have to be about religion or ethnicity. In the United States, the overarching, controlling identities are political — Democrat versus Republican.

This political sectarianism is the world that Joe Biden inherits. It will limit what he can do. It will also make him rely on strategies less about legislation and more about the power of words.

As a recent article in Science Magazine put it, political sectarianism has produced a surge in hate. 

Nowadays, Democrats and Republicans don’t simply disagree. That’s closer to polarization, which under today’s circumstances seems kind of quaint, like two Midwestern farmers at the local diner arguing over mid-morning coffee about whether to vote for Eisenhower or Stevenson.

Political identity has become the primary division between Americans.

Nick Grube/Civil Beat

Now, for voters, the opposing side is more than wrong. It’s different, not to be trusted, perhaps even less than human — not worth considering.

The opposition is an existential threat.

The other side becomes incomprehensible, which typically becomes a justification for dismissing them from your brain, not to mention your heart. What each side feels for the other is not contempt. It’s beneath contempt.

Today, equally large majorities of Democrats and Republicans, about 80%, believe that the opposing side has very different fundamental values regarding America.

People are now more likely to vote according to how much they hate the other party than how much they like their own. This negative party identification is a more powerful predictor than religion or race.

Political orientations have become such central and controlling identities that people change the ways they describe their religion, class, even their sexual orientation to be consistent with their political identity.

Consider what’s happening right now in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election. Close to 80% of Republican voters still think the election was fraudulent while over 90% of Democrats think the election was fair. Neither side can fathom the election views of the other.

Trump and his team have considered the possibility of declaring martial law as a way to invalidate the election and hold a new one.

Is this the one-step-too-far that would unite the country, Democrats and Republicans alike, against Trump, bridging the hard sectarian lines?

Given the strength of sectarianism, it’s an open question.

For political leaders, performance has become more important than policymaking. Much like in the theater, the politician as actor appeals to the emotions of her constituent audience. Competence takes a back seat to performance.

Sectarianism is a threat because, like with serious religious conflicts, it makes people more willing to violate democratic norms and even to use violence.  After all, if the other side is irredeemable and an existential threat, why not?

Biden can begin to chip away at sectarianism with competence.

Courtesy: Gage Skidmore

Maybe Biden really broke his foot by kicking himself for taking the job.

But Biden is an optimist by nature as well as a politician of the old school — I mean that in a good way — which adds another layer to his optimism.

He’s also pragmatic and skilled.

Given that, what can he do?

Let’s start by considering what Biden, and for that matter, the Democrats in Congress will not be able to do.

They will not be able to quickly pass any significant bills for three reasons. First, anything of significance will bump up against the troubles that sectarianism cause and will continue to cause.

Second, under the best of circumstances for the Democrats — that is, if they win both seats in Georgia’s special Senate election — they will still only have a bare majority in the Senate.

Finally, the civics lesson reminder. The Constitution with its separation of powers hinders and discourages mandates.

Still, Biden and his team can do some extraordinarily important things early on, even in this confining setting.

They can patch up relationships with other countries and undo Trump’s executive orders.

Most of all, they can begin to bring back confidence and order to the crucial government agencies that the Trump administration ignored, crippled, or destroyed.

Biden has begun to do that already with his cabinet level appointments and the things he has to say about them.

What Biden can also do and is already doing is to use the power of words, which is the essence of presidential power.

What Richard Neustadt, the best presidential scholar ever, wrote about the presidency over sixty years ago still stands. A president’s fundamental power is the power to persuade.

Here’s a recent example of this: Donald Trump has persuaded an enormous number of people about all sorts of things, including the idea that truthfulness is unimportant.

It’s clear that competence is the Biden administration’s watchword. That’s an important move because, in a politically sectarian society, competence matters much less than loyalty.

In fact, “competent” is often the word that the media has used to describe Biden’s cabinet picks so far. It is becoming a buzzword that drives perceptions.

An aura of competence can overcome some of sectarianism’s impact. But just some, and in the short run not much, because sectarianism is so deep.

All that talk of reaching across the aisle and uniting or healing America, it’s worthy and aspirational, but sectarian societies don’t change that quickly.

The national response to COVID-19 has been shameful. Joe Biden has already made moves to change this. That’s wonderful news. Keep in mind, though, what a powerful role sectarianism has played in determining our responses to the pandemic, where masks are seen as an artifact of one political sect.

So “gridlock” is not simply about differences over, say, the size of the national debt. It’s about the need to appeal to the deeper forces that drive sectarianism.

Donald Trump wanted to play up to sectarianism — to reinforce it. Biden’s task, which involves overcoming sectarianism, is much harder because it goes against the grain.

What can we do to overcome sectarianism?  Do we really want to?   

That’s for my next column.


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

"This political sectarianism is the world that Joe Biden inherits!!" That's laughable, Joe Biden helped create it since Trump was elected. "...makes people more willing to violate democratic norms," you're referring to violating election laws to ensure a certain candidate wins; or do you mean using government workers to undermine a particular administration, maybe using the law to go after anyone that supports them?  

BK96706 · 2 weeks ago

Bringing everyone together is super difficult but not impossible, even if you’re a Republican or Democrat. Significant events throughout our history have proven that fact.  My only hope is that Biden tries to heal our wounds, find common ground,  and keeps the nation’s needs at the forefront.  That’s all I can ask for.

ddperry · 3 weeks ago

Unfortunately, Biden has the media working against him in this task to bridge divides. Policy and rhetoric can only go so far.  Trust in the media is at an all time low, as long as the media continues to look the other way for some stories (elections, Hunter Biden) while focused on others (Russia collusion), Biden won't get very far. 

elrod · 3 weeks ago

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