The dynamics of political polarization

The dynamics of political polarization
Simon A. Levin, Helen V. Milner, and Charles Perrings

PNAS December 14, 2021 118 (50) e2116950118;

A number of trends in national and international politics greatly affect our capacity to achieve the cooperation that will be necessary to address the challenges facing society over the coming decades. These involve the interplay among partisanship and party loyalties within countries, populism, and polarization within and among nations. The trends are widespread and seem to be reshaping politics across the globe. They are inherently systems-level phenomena, involving interactions among multiple component parts and the emergence of broader-scale features; yet, they have been inadequately explored from that perspective.

To make progress in understanding these issues, political-science research stands to benefit from insights from other disciplines, including evolutionary biology, systems science, and the disciplines concerned with the fair and efficient provision of public goods of all kinds, but especially those affecting the shared environment and public health. These other disciplines, in turn, stand to gain equally from the perspective developed in political science. In viewing political systems as complex adaptive systems, we can gain a new understanding of the forces that shape current trends, and how that knowledge might affect governance strategies going forward. Extreme polarization is a dangerous phenomenon that requires greater scientific attention to address effectively.

This Special Feature of PNAS draws on this relatively new interdisciplinary field, featuring original joint research from collaborating political scientists and complex systems theorists. Each paper is a true partnership among the different disciplines and illustrates the benefits of closer ties between complex systems and social science. The papers explore the emergence of patterns and structures in societies and the linkages among individual behaviors and societal benefits across scales of space, time, and organizational complexity. The COVID-19 pandemic provides the most recent examples of how patterns of polarization in societies interact with our abilities to solve societal challenges.

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