Can The Politically-Opposite Couple Survive?

Political polarization in this country is now so acute that party affiliation transcends practically everything else.

“We’re done. I’m breaking up with you,” Beth wrote to Dave during the 2008 Presidential election. “When you said last week you were voting for McCain I thought you were kidding. But…when you said that Palin was ‘extremely qualified’ I wanted to vomit.”

Beth is not alone. When she broke up with Dave over his unrequited love for Sarah, she was at the forefront of an unfortunate trend. Interracial marriage? Great! Gay marriage? Finally! Interfaith marriage? Wonderful! Already, it’s getting to the point where vegan lesbians falling in love, getting married, and adopting a rainbow coalition of children is kind of boring. In this wondrous world where love conquers all, is there any couple that’s OK to hate? Yep. It’s the “political-opposite” couple. Also called “sleeping with the enemy.”

According to Fear and Loathing Across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization, the most divisive force in American society today isn’t economic inequality or institutional racism, but political partisanship. Crucially, it’s not just the politics that divide, as political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood point out, but the fact that it’s socially acceptable to openly bash others on the opposite side. As they note, it’s politically incorrect for parents to protest when their kids choose partners of a different race. However, it’s perfectly fine to object to them marrying outside their party.

“Unlike race, gender, and other social divides where group-related attitudes and behaviors are constrained by social norms,” Iyengar and Westwood explain, “there are no corresponding pressures to temper disapproval of political opponents.” Rather, the opposite pressures are in place. Liberals are expected to voice abundant loathing of Rush Limbaugh and the right-wing agenda, just as conservatives regularly scream about Rachel Maddow and the liberal bias in the media. Failure to do so is a symptom of political disloyalty and grounds for ostracization.

For any number of reasons, these developments are troubling. Studies of social dynamics by legal scholar Cass Sunstein have demonstrated that discussions inside like-minded groups tend to generate more extreme versions of their starting premises. In other words, associating with people who always agree with your views may feel nice and soul-matey at first, but history has shown that it doesn’t lead to utopia. It leads to the guillotine.

Political polarization in this country is now so acute that party affiliation sometimes transcends race. One detail that came out from Iyengar and Westwood’s study was that an African-American Democrat might favor a white Democrat over an African-American Republican in a hypothetical job situation. Neighborhoods are now politically self-segregating, and the number of couples engaged in political-opposite relationships is now hovering around 9%. Is this number high or low compared to previous decades? In an email to me, Professor Iyengar stated:

There’s very little over-time data on inter-party marriage. A major study done in 1965 interviewed a sample of husbands and wives and found the agreement level to be around 65-70%. So there has been a significant change since then.  

In 1965, in other words, approximately 30-35% of marriages were between political opposites, consistent with the ease of finding anecdotal snippets of Internet conversations that start with…”my grandma was a Republican and my grandpa was a Dem, and they were the sweetest, happiest couple you’d ever met.”

But of present-day couples, that 9% is as almost as publicity-shy as Daniel Day-Lewis. I know of a few, but they’re either getting ready to divorce, or they won’t admit it publicly out of fear of social reprisal.

In today’s partisan landscape, the political-opposite couple stands little chance of surviving. The most famous political-opposite couple in this country, Arnold (R) & Maria (D), ended up going down in a blaze of tabloid glory, transformed into Terminator v. Skeletor with both sides annihilating the other. (Predictably, The Terminator is back.) Once upon a time, Andrew Stein (D) and Ann Coulter (R) dated, but they broke up. In 2010, a few couples went on the record for the New York Times confessing that they were wealthy white marrieds whose spouse was an Important Person of the opposite political persuasion.

Fast forward to today: In a scant four years it’s gone from being a political oddity to being a social taboo. If there are any other celebrities out there dating outside their political camp, they aren’t willing to admit it on “The View.”

Because I’m in a political-opposite relationship which is also interracial and inter-denominational (he’s Catholic, I’m Protestant; in earlier times, this would have been a good excuse for my beheading), this trend troubles me. As a liberal progressive, I believe in social justice and fighting for diversity. To me, however, this doesn’t just mean racial or gender diversity, but also economic and political diversity. Oddly, “The Walking Dead” gets this right, and it’s among the most popular shows on television.

In real life, Congress is at each other’s throats and eating each other alive. Which probably explains why last week’s debut of “Rival Survival” on The Discovery Channel, a reality TV version stranding two male U.S. senators, one Republican and Democrat, on a deserted tropical island was also kinda of boring. Will the society of the spectacle demand a televised zombie apocalypse to make Americans abandon partisanship and start working together?

I don’t know about you, but I hope that things never get that bad. And though it might seem that sleeping with the enemy is the end of the world, you never know. It just might be the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Paula Young Lee is the author of numerous articles and books, including the memoir, Deer Hunting in Paris, which won the 2014 Travel Book Award of the Society of American Travel Writers. Follow her on Twitter @paulayounglee.

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