Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
Productive conversation across party lines seems to be ever more elusive.
Research has shown that face-to-face conversation can reduce prejudices and change voters’ opinions on certain issues. But productive conversation, or any conservation at all, seems to be getting more rare. Thanks to more time spent online, longer work hours, economic segregation and the continuing spread of suburbia, Americans have become increasingly isolated from one another, and from different groups, over the past several decades. (One indicator: About 30 percent of Americans say they have never interacted with their neighbors, and only 20 percent interact frequently. In the 1970s, those figures were roughly reversed.)
Heightened political polarization seems to be another factor causing Americans to keep to themselves, at least across party lines. A new study by the Pew Research Center focused on interaction across party lines bolsters that idea. It shows that political views influence even the traits and habits that Americans prefer to see in their neighbors, and that conversations across the red/blue divide aren’t exactly comfortable.
In a survey of 4,385 Americans conducted earlier this year, 31 percent of Democrats and 27 percent of Republicans said it would be harder to get along with a new person in their community if they happened to belong to the other party. Other characteristics, including gun ownership for Democrats and a lack of belief in God for Republicans, were even stronger hypothetical deterrents to neighborliness.
When conservations do happen across party lines, they don’t seem to be easy. Both Republicans and Democrats were equally likely to say that they found interactions with members of the other party “stressful and frustrating” as they were to find them “interesting and informative.” More than 60 percent of both Republicans and Democrats said that, by the end of those conversations, they tend to find that they have less in common politically with the other person than they previously thought.
Part of what’s happening, according to a different Pew survey from 2014, is that Americans are becoming more consistent, even rigid, in their political beliefs. It used to be more common for Americans to have mixed views—a bit of conservative economics, a dollop of liberal social policy. But “ideological silos” have become increasingly the norm on both sides of the aisle, which in turn affects how, and with whom, Americans interact. “People with down-the-line ideological positions”— nearly two-thirds of conservatives and about half of liberals—“...say that most of their close friends share their political views,“ the Pew report states.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t long ago that state and regional borders defined party lines. Today, density is much more the geographical determinant. Liberals gravitate toward cities, and conservatives prefer rural areas and smaller towns, studies have found. In turn, both modes of life seem to influence the political beliefs of their adherents. Distressed suburbs—poor, non-minority, and middle-class suburbs—are some of the last bastions of political diversity, with the most even splits of Democratic and Republican voters. Those communities have emerged as the “new swing states” over the past few elections. But are neighbors in those communities talking? For so many other reasons—economic, spatial, and technological—it would appear not.