One year ago, a report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security assessed the readiness of 195 countries around the world to confront a deadly disease outbreak. Topping the list of most-prepared nations was the United States of America.
But that forecast didn't account for one crucial factor: the toxic degree of partisanship that would turn something as simple as wearing a face mask into a political statement.
How did things get so bad that Americans couldn't come together to confront a universal threat like COVID-19, which has killed more than 227,000 of us so far?
A report in this week's issue of Science offers an explanation — political sectarianism.
The authors of the new report explain that political sectarianism goes beyond mere disagreements about the nation's goals and how they should be achieved. Nor is it a case of people being trapped in partisan echo chambers, or sorting themselves into Democratic and Republican ecospheres where they're unlikely to encounter a contrary point of view.
What pushes mere enmity into the realm of political sectarianism is a "poisonous cocktail" of beliefs that turns opponents into mortal enemies regardless of the issue, according to the 15 experts in political science, social psychology, sociology and cognitive science who co-wrote the report.
This cocktail has three key ingredients, they explain.
The first is "othering," which they describe as a "tendency to view opposing partisans as essentially different or alien to oneself."
The second ingredient is aversion, a reflex to "dislike and distrust" one's political opponents.
The final ingredient is moralization, which causes us to see our opponents as not merely wrongheaded, but downright evil.