What is Sectarian Privilege?

Odds are that if you identify as either a Democrat or a Republican, you benefit from what I refer to as “sectarian privilege.”  In terms of privilege, discrimination, and power abuse, I find this term to be quite fitting.

By definition, a “sectarian” refers to someone who adheres to the beliefs of a particular sect (or an entity embodying those ideals).  Traditionally, we’ve defined a “sect” by its embrace of radical religious beliefs or dogma.

However, Dictionary.com also defines it as “any group, party, or faction united by a specific doctrine or under a doctrinal leader.”

Therefore, while “sectarian” may traditionally be used to characterize radical religious sects or cults – I’d say it’s also indisputable that many zealots within the two major political parties regard their platforms and ideologies with unapologetic acerbity.  And how often do legislators of those mindsets rise into party leadership positions?

You know, it’s sort of…cult-like.

So why shouldn’t we simply call it “partisanship?”  Well, in many cases, “partisan” would indeed be an appropriate label.  However, because individual and group loyalties to organized political parties are becoming more and more fractured within American society, the word “partisan,” in and of itself, isn’t quite an all-encompassing descriptor.

This past election season was most likely a harbinger of things to come.  Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders each challenged the major party establishments by tapping into anger of conservatives and progressives, respectively.  Obviously, Trump succeeded whereas Sanders didn’t – at least, not in the short-term.  But those divisions will likely continue beyond Inauguration Day.  “Trump conservatives” will object to business-as-usual philosophies of mainstream Republicans as well as the dubious individual goals of House Speaker Paul Ryan.  “Sanders progressives” will blast mainstream Democrats who appear to be shying away from bread-and-butter issues such as voter suppression and environmental protection.

As with other forms of discrimination (i.e. racism, sexism, ageism), sectarianism can be divided into three basic subcategories:  institutional (systemic), cultural (group-based), and social (individually inflicted).  These subcategories have a parallel presence within any other type of “-ism”…regardless of whether it’s based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, or any other characteristic.

So let’s take a look at how the disenfranchisement of third parties and Independent voters gets accomplished and perpetuated through the abuse of several intertwining systemic, fraternal, and personal aspects.


Discrimination against Independent voters and nonaffiliated citizens is systemic when we examine this nation’s ballot access laws.  With all fifty states comprising an awkward “patchwork quilt” of dissimilar election policies, we lack any national standard to protect those of us who are devoid of Republican or Democratic Party loyalties.

In the much-coveted battleground state of Pennsylvania, political parties must attain a membership registry totaling at least 15% of the state’s total voter registration quantity if they wish to put their candidates on the ballot.  A similar policy would disqualify Republican candidates in solidly-blue states…or Democratic candidates in solidly-red states.

North Carolina petition requirements for Independent candidates demand that the petitioner gather signatures totaling 2% of the prior cycle’s gubernatorial vote (approximately 90,000 signatures).

Illinois gives new third parties a short window of three months in which to gather signatures amounting to 5% of votes cast in the previous contest (i.e. several hundreds of thousands of signatures).  They must also petition each candidate for each office separately – meaning they aren’t allowed to run a coordinated (across-the-ballot) campaign, the way Democrats and Republicans are.

In Oklahoma, new political parties must also reach a 5% threshold (similar to Illinois), and candidates must poll at 10% or more to be featured in the presidential and gubernatorial slots.  When third parties do gain recognized status, if they fail to retain a 10% polling threshold then all of the relevant party registrants are purged and must start from scratch, two years later.

New Mexico disenfranchises third party candidates by stipulating they must re-petition their supporters (following initial nomination) with signatures totaling 1% or more of the previous gubernatorial vote count.  If they fail to do so, they are kicked off the ballot – yet, New Mexico election laws make no such equivalent demand of Democratic or Republican candidates.

Those are just a handful of examples.  Besides qualifying for the ballot, the established political parties (Democrats and Republicans) in most states are financially supported by special interests with hefty war chests – labor unions, teachers’ unions, and trial lawyers for the Democrats; business leaders, gun ownership activists, and religious fundamentalists for the Republicans.

In 21 states, there are “closed” primaries or Caucuses – where you must be registered as a Republican or a Democrat in order to vote for a candidate running in their primaries.  These states are:  Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, New York, Wyoming, Arizona, New Jersey, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, and Nebraska.  Republicans in Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Idaho also selectively close off their primaries to non-Republicans, as do Democrats in Alabama to non-Democrats.

Defenders of the status quo argue that a political party should have the right to determine who participates in its own primaries and Caucuses.  But, since both Republicans and Democrats are asking the rest of us to vote for their candidates in the General Election, it’s disingenuous for them to dictate which candidates make it that far.

As discussed by democracy advocate Theresa Amato, the lawmakers and appointed officials who oversee these dissimilar election laws are often partisan, corrupt, or inept (or a combination of all three!).  They may design the laws with dubious compliance standards.  They can be either ignorant or deceptive upon giving misinformation to voters who show up at the polls.  This is on top of the “nonpartisan” sham that is the Commission on Presidential Debates, which makes it virtually impossible for third parties to qualify for federal matching funds at the presidential level.


While it isn’t formally systemic in nature, “cultural sectarianism” occurs when groups use partisan politics against one another.  This proceeds to spill over into systemic environments, fostering a climate where institutional sectarianism is allowed to run rampant.

College campuses are a hotbed for such activity; undergraduates will use manufactured devotion to their local College Democrats or College Republicans to frame activism in terms of “winning” or “losing”…rather than in terms of good policy or diverse ideology.  People may carry this mentality with them as they establish careers and advance into leadership roles within professional associations or unions.

I suspect these toxic sentiments take root when children grow up in partisan households.  Americans are conditioned from a very early age to engage in scapegoating or pointing one’s finger at “the other side” – hence so many allegations of “Obama did it!” or “Bush did it!” during discussions of why exactly U.S. laws and policies have become so flawed, over time.  

As a consequence, Democratic victors whine about supposedly having to “clean up the messes created by Republicans”…while Republican victors whine about supposedly having to “clean up the messes created by Democrats.”

Granted, it’s easier for both Democrats and Republicans to simultaneously find respective sectarian commonalities when they live in “purple” states; it also means the political climates of “swing states” are more contentious, since their opposing forces of liberalism and conservatism are more evenly-divided.  

In the same way racism against white people is situational – or sexism against men is situational – you’re more likely to be ostracized if you’re a Democrat in a “red” state or a Republican in a “blue” state.  However, even in solidly-liberal or solidly-conservative states, it’s much easier to locate very pointed cohorts of organized support (i.e. a staunch Democrat in Wyoming, or a staunch Republican in Maryland).  By contrast, Independents are fairly isolated from partisan coalitions regardless of where we live.

On top of this disenfranchisement, we are subjected to the sectarian tactic of “group blame” against third parties and/or Independent voters.  In the aftermath of the 2016 election, partisan Democrats are resorting to this narrative despite the glaring corruption under the former leadership of ex-party chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.  They also implicate members from the Sanders coalition of fueling Democratic disharmony, in the first place – rather than considering this coalition’s valid criticisms of the Democratic Party establishment itself.

Republicans, despite controlling both the Executive and Legislative Branches of our government right now, must also come to terms with how that power might end up being short-livedespecially if consumer growth collapses in the wake of attempts to transform our oligarchy into a theocracy.


Partisan Democrats and partisan Republicans are the ones who truly need to “privilege-check” themselves.  The rise of social media has certainly increased the capacity for those with malignant political agendas to ramp up their laziness, mean-spiritedness, and propensity for deception.  But, in the interest of equilibrium, I also find it salient to point out how social media offers a great deal of potential for the rest of us to counteract that.

Unfortunately, people take what they absorb from venues of both institutional and cultural sectarianism – and then apply that to how they’ll interact with individuals.  As with anything else in life, some people are willing to get to know an individual based on the quality (or lack thereof) of her or his own beliefs.  But other people are content with sticking by initial assumptions they make about those who may disagree with them…and then “sticking to their guns” through broad generalizations and sweeping character assassinations.

One prominent straw man I’ve seen from Democrats and Republicans alike is their accusation that self-identified Independents are simply calling them “sheep” – that, apparently, we are unequivocally opposed to the notion of voting for any candidate who is either a Democrat or a Republican.  And that we (as Independents) “don’t know what we really stand for.”

They follow up this axiom by clinging to the fallacy of “This is the system we have,” so that the bar is perpetually lowered.  They lecture Independent voters that we should focus our activism on the local and state levels, rather than running national candidates – as though it’s somehow an either/or proposition.  They use opposition to one’s party affiliation as an invective by which to measure someone’s morality.  Greens are assumed to be “far lefties” who are unwilling to compromise.  Libertarians are mocked as “right-wing hippies.”

Predictably, in this past election cycle, anyone who refused to get behind Hillary Clinton was viewed as a public enemy.  And, as we saw happen during the George W. Bush Administration, anyone who chose not to get aboard the Trump Train has found their patriotism challenged.

If Democrats want to return to the majority in the near future, this vitriolic approach has to stop!

Now we have an unprecedented epidemic of individuals taking to Twitter, Facebook, and online forums or messageboards to personally shame other individuals who don’t agree with them 100% of the time.

Pardon me for resenting your accusations that I don’t fit nicely into your sectarian boxes.  I have many left-leaning friends and acquaintances who assume I’m a “closet Democrat” (or a “closet Democratic Socialist”) by virtue of the specific issues upon which we agree.  I have conservative or libertarian friends/acquaintances who jump at the chance to recruit me as an ally whenever I disagree with the Democratic Party’s agenda.

Do you even care that, despite not having voted for either of this year’s major party presidential nominees, I still mapped out hypothetical presidential cabinets for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?

Again, these subcategories of sectarianism have parallel counterparts found within racism, sexism, ageism, and practically all other “-isms” out there.

So what can we do about it?  As with any “-ism,” there’s no easy solution.  A good starting point is my post-election analysis from a few weeks ago.  

The Huffington Post’s Zach Carter makes a cogent assessment of why Hillary Clinton failed to achieve a decisive Electoral College victory.  Millions of voters who might otherwise have supported Secretary Clinton ended up voting for third-party candidates – or chose to sit out the election entirely – because they didn’t view the Clinton campaign or the Democrats as genuinely caring about the issues that mattered to them.  

Sectarian privilege allows Democrats and Republicans to weasel their way into power while discounting the public good – or lose power, and scratch their heads while trying to find a scapegoat other than themselves.

As an alternative to succumbing to sectarian privilege, I’ll offer up some general pieces of advice that I’d give to Americans…both the powerless as well as the powerful.  

If you encounter someone who seems hostile to your politics, ask them to summarize the main handful of core issues that have been at the source of their anger.  And then, reciprocate:  explain to your opponent which issues cause you the most stress, and why.

You won’t necessarily change each other’s core beliefs; but you’ll probably at least find some areas of common ground.  Are there any solutions whereupon you and your opponent are in agreement on what needs to be fixed?  Going along with that:  do you and your opponent share any consensus on any possible steps (as incremental or minor as they might be) to work toward solving the problem?

This doesn’t just involve Democrats and Republicans.  It can involve bilateral dialogue between:  Democrats and socialists, Republicans and libertarians, Democrats and libertarians, Republicans and socialists, or libertarians and socialists (with self-identified socialists, in many cases, associating themselves with the Green Party).  It also should involve the ways in which nonaffiliated Independents (such as myself) engage in dialogue with any of these aforementioned groups.

Stop subscribing to the dogma that a legislative solution has to be “your way” because that’s what your party says.  Although self-interested party leaders may try to persuade you into thinking something is a good idea, they’re counting on others to refrain from questioning it.

Resist the urge to bask in short-term gratification, especially in the aftermath of a victory.  Having a political orgasm of watching “heads exploding” amongst your political opponents is self-defeating.  It turns you cocky, and allows you to be ripe for a blindside in the next several election cycles.

And, no, mandatory term limits for all lawmakers won’t magically solve all of our problems.

But the initial hurdle is for us, collectively, to quit denying that a two-party duopoly exists…or to stop serving as apologists for the reality of its existence.

Then, we can actually work toward implementing better ballot access laws and electoral reform at the local, state, and national levels alike.

Finally, reflect upon the words of former President Theodore Roosevelt, when he mounted a third-party run in 1912 aligned with the now-defunct Bull Moose Party:

“Political parties exist to secure responsible government and to execute the will of the people.  From these great tasks, both of the old parties have turned aside.  Instead of instruments to promote the general welfare they have become the tools of corrupt interests, which use them impartially to serve their selfish purposes.  Behind the ostensible government sits enthroned an invisible government owing no allegiance and acknowledging no responsibility to the people.”

Featured image by Douglas Simkin via Flickr.