The rise of populist movements is changing political systems around the world. As support for these “anti-elite” movements intensifies, many are scrambling to understand whether economic decline and intensifying inter-group conflict are playing a role. A model developed by a team of researchers — including Nolan McCarty — shows how group polarization, rising inequality, and economic decline may be strongly connected. This work is featured in ZME Science, whose mission is to bridge the gap between the latest scientific research and the general public by presenting studies and developments in science in a relatable language, and is also profiled by the School of Public and International Affairs. McCarty is Susan Dod Brown Professor of Politics and Public Affairs and a CSDP faculty associate at Princeton University.
The model develops a theory that group polarization tends to soar in times of economic duress and rising inequality. Yet, even after financial conditions improve, these divisions may remain deeply rooted, which is why strengthened social safety nets are needed to help minimize conflict across social, ethnic, and racial groups.
Times arise when national unity is needed, like we’re seeing now with Covid-19, but we shouldn’t wait for a public health crisis or war to bring people together. Policymakers and those in government should act now by investing in and protecting social safety nets that can prevent widening social and political divisions.