Political polarization has seemingly reached a boiling point. The last few years have given us a congressman shot at a pickup softball game, politicians and figures in the media receiving explosive devices in the mail, college students punched for their political views, death threats galore, and harassment of public people in public places. What can be done?
Upon arriving at the first Better Angels convention in 2018, I was given a nametag with a red lanyard to signify that I “lean conservative or tend to vote Republican.” Later, inside a packed chapel filled with equal numbers of people wearing red and blue lanyards, a woman approached me—also wearing a red lanyard—because we were from the same place: Los Angeles. After making the jokes one might expect us to make (“Hey! The other conservative from LA!”) she looked me in the eye and asked, “So… have you come out yet?”
At first I thought she was just being cute. But the truth is, I haven’t told even some of my closest friends that I’m a conservative. The thought terrifies me. I live in a blue area, and people tend to talk and joke about politics in a way that presupposes everybody within earshot holds similar views, and I’d rather not rock the boat or make a situation unnecessarily discomfiting. When I do voice my opinion, it tends to be generic: not “I think this” but “There are some people who say…”
What I quickly discovered was that I’m not alone. At that convention, and the subsequent 2019 convention in St. Louis, I met many liberals from conservative areas and conservatives from liberal areas who feel profoundly uncomfortable voicing their political opinions, and find it easier to keep their heterodox thoughts to themselves. Again and again, I heard language associated with the LGBT+ social movement: people were “in the closet” with their political views, they were afraid to “come out,” and adopted behavior and cut off the authentic expression of their views in order to “pass.”
I don’t want to compare and contrast levels of oppression and the lived-in experiences of the LGBT+ community and people who are political minorities in their geographic communities. But, broadly speaking, there are some interesting parallels that can shed a light on our current polarized political environment, and perhaps suggest a path forward to a more respectful future.
In 1987 75% of Americans believed homosexuality was “always wrong,” while in 1988 only 11% of the population approved of same-sex marriage. By 2010, the people who thought homosexuality was “always wrong” dropped to 43.5% of the population, and 46% supported same sex marriage. Today 62% support same-sex marriage. It’s not hard to look at the increased acceptance of gays and lesbians by younger people and extrapolate that the rate of tolerance will continue to rise.
So what changed? Lots of factors undoubtedly contributed, but an interesting one to hone in on is visibility. Most Americans’ attitude towards homosexuality remained the same until the 1980’s. Not coincidentally, in 1983 24% of Americans said they personally knew someone who was gay. In 1988 a “war conference” was held among gay leaders in Warrenton, Virginia. One of the objectives of the conference was to, “do a better job of encouraging people to begin the process of coming out…” By 2001, 73% of Americans said they personally knew someone who was gay, and 79% said that knowing someone who was gay contributed to their acceptance of homosexuality.
At the same time that people are increasingly engaging with homosexuals, they’re staying well away from people who hold different political views. Ten years ago Bill Bishop wrote about the phenomenon of communities becoming increasingly homogenized in “The Great Sort:” when strong liberals and conservatives feel that they live in a community that doesn’t support their values, they move to one that does. In 1976, 26.8% of people lived in counties where one political party won by more than 20 points in the presidential election. In 2004, that number grew to 48.3%. In 2016…60%. At the same time, the majority of people say that their friend networks are predominantly made up of people who share their ideology. So, what happens when people engage less with those from their ideological opposites?
About half the country says they’re afraid of people of the other political persuasion. As interracial marriage increases across the country, fewer people are marrying another person from across the political divide. In a bad omen for the future, most Americans don’t want their children to marry someone from outside their own political party. In 2019, the most plausible update of Romeo and Juliet would cast the families of the star-crossed lovers as members of the Republicans and Democrats.
Not surprisingly, the majority of Americans are afraid to openly voice their political views. Small wonder. If you hold views not held by the majority of people around you, and there’s a better chance than not that those people are afraid of you, don’t want to be around you, and wouldn’t want their children to marry you… what incentive is there for you to speak your mind? But if people don’t speak their minds then that allows others to think the worst about them. Which further exacerbates all of the problems above, and soon the country is caught in a negative feedback loop which ends with…well, there will at least be a lot more shouting.
We need a paradigm shift, a move towards toleration and respect for people. And that shift can only happen at the grassroots level. Toleration for homosexuality and support for gay marriage wasn’t decreed from on high. It only happened after people made themselves visible, when they gave homosexuality a human face. People who hold political beliefs that cut against the grain within their communities need to make themselves visible in the same way. It’ll take a measure of bravery, and might produce some uncomfortable situations, but the slow, hard-fought gains will be worth it. Around the time of the “war conference” came the march that is the historical basis of National Coming Out Day. Today, there might be need for another one. “Coming Out” can include those whose points of view make them ostracized in their communities much the way gays, lesbians, and all manner of sexual minorities were not so long ago.