by Kevin Vallier
Political polarization in the United States is bad. Americans don’t just dislike the other party; we hate anyone associated with it. We increasingly indulge our worst impulses. We grow ever-more biased against people with different political perspectives. Hatred for those in an opposition political party in the U.S. has risen steadily since 2000 – when around 10% to 20% of Democrats and Republicans said they despised the other party – to today, when about half say so.
There’s no end in sight. Generation Lab/Axios polling just released some disturbing new findings: Young Democrats really hate Republicans.
The poll asked 850 college students nationwide from Nov. 18 to 22 whether they would date someone who voted for the opposing presidential candidate. Seventy-one percent of Democrats said they would not date someone who voted for a Republican for president; 31% of Republicans said the same. Forty-one percent of Democrats said they would not shop at or support a business of someone who voted for the opposing presidential candidate; 7% of Republicans said the same. Thirty-seven percent of Democrats said that they would not be friends with someone who voted for the opposing presidential candidate; 5% of Republicans said the same. And 30% of Democrats said they would not work for someone who voted for the opposing presidential candidate; 7% of Republicans agreed.
According to the pollsters, Democrats think that many Republican political views, especially those associated with former President Trump, lie outside the realm of acceptable opinion. Some Democrats refuse to compromise on issues related to sex and gender, such as abortion and LGBT rights.
These results may not seem surprising. First, Democrats dominate college campuses. They have larger professional networks and social circles. They can more readily afford to exclude people from their in-groups. Second, as the politically dominant group, Democrats want to defend their turf from intruders. Exclude the out-group to keep the in-group safe. Third, Democrats tend to be more secular, and so they often invest greater importance in others’ political views as opposed to, say, their religious views.
Something is missing, though. Plenty of minority groups develop their own social networks to find work and love. Plenty of groups at college do this, too. And even if Democrats are most invested in politics, they might still try and connect with people with whom they disagree.
What we need to explain is the animus – animus so strong that how a person votes should change whom one will date or work for. For many young people, all they need to know about someone in deciding whether to associate with them is for whom they voted. Why would anyone want to relate to others in such a one-dimensional way? It’s almost as if the animus is part of the point.
To be fair, whom people vote for is now a decent heuristic for their other beliefs and values. A vote is a signal that indicates many other factors about a person. For young people who are less religious and more politically invested, the vote is enough for them to “swipe left,” as they say.
But I still find the price that Democratic college students are willing to pay too high for that to be the explanation. I think an older social dynamic has replicated itself without our realizing it: the reassertion of social hierarchy in a time when other hierarchies are flattening. Social dynamics are suppressing hierarchies based on race, gender, and class. But many college students, like people generally, need to feel superior to some other social group. In the past, college students drew their need for superiority from family connections, educational level, religion, wealth, or even race. Now that these factors matter less, the desire to be in the top of a hierarchy has reasserted itself.
What matters now isn’t educational superiority or class superiority, but political superiority. College students are creating new hierarchies to replace the now frowned-upon hierarchies of the past. The new hierarchies are based on sharing a political tribe and a set of values – even as the dominant political tribe conceives of itself as opposed to hierarchy. They cannot see the problem. The desperation to suppress social disparities has led progressives to wield social power by tacitly creating an entirely new campus hierarchy.
College campuses are legendary sites of hierarchy and privilege. What if nothing has changed but the names? What if the new snobbery is merely political snobbery? That would explain why Republicans can’t get a date. It is essential to progressives’ suppressed desire for social superiority that Republicans enjoy fewer life opportunities.
When we put matters this way, we can better explain the data. And we can see how repellent these new attitudes are, based as they may be on the need to dominate and condescend. And it suggests we have another bigotry to fight: political bigotry.
Why is political bigotry wrong? It gives politics too much importance – and power. Presidential policies simply aren’t that different from one another. Consider how many of Trump’s policies Biden has retained, at least to some extent. Further, one’s vote has a vanishingly small impact on electoral outcomes. Why make your major life choices based on such acts alone?
Another reason political bigotry is wrong is because of its negative social consequences. The next generation of Americans will live lives increasingly insulated from one another, with a strong sense of superiority over the other side. Polarization will suffuse our most intimate relationships. People will experience fewer challenges to their beliefs. Creativity flourishes in cultures where people develop friendships across differences. One of the keys of creativity is the ability to form friendships close enough that one is comfortable suggesting stupid ideas. Most ideas are stupid, but if you can’t share them with others, it is harder to identify that one idea that might change everything. By isolating and segregating, we limit the viewpoint diversity in our social groups, which will limit our ability to learn new ways of living together.
More broadly, polarization has created so many internal problems that our geopolitical competitors, such as Russia and China, see America as on the decline. Perhaps they’re right.
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Kevin D. Vallier is associate professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University. His most recent book is “Trust in a Polarized Age” (Oxford UP 2020). He can be found on Twitter @kvallier.
Photo “College Students” by Rowan University College Republicans.