Political Individualists Are Holding the Country Together

Not everyone has chosen a side.


It was shortly after Donald Trump took office that the father of one of my son's taekwondo classmates approached me in our small, reliably Republican Arizona town to chat about the new White House resident.

"I'm actually a Democrat," he whispered conspiratorially. "I don't talk much about that here."

Soon thereafter, another friend confided that the leftier-than-thou neighbors in her Chicago suburb also had her watching what she said.

"I'm surrounded by liberals and progressives until I drive a few miles west or south," she told me.

Both feel besieged but were comfortable turning to me because I don't share in our age's deep tribal divisions along political and cultural lines. The two leading factions of American politics can't stop fighting each other. But if anybody can keep the peace, it may be those of us who can't abide joining either camp.

"There are stark differences between Democrats and Republicans," political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler of the University of North Carolina write in their book, Prius or Pickup? "What they like to eat, what shows they want to watch, where they choose to live" are all at odds, because worldview, culture, and lifestyle have come to align in recent years with partisan affiliation. Republicans and Democrats no longer just vote differently—they live differently, see the world differently, and emphasize different values.

And that means when Americans move to rural towns like mine—which offer houses on more property and access to the outdoors—they also tend to surround themselves with people who share their Republican politics. When they move to my friend's suburb, they find themselves among fellow Democrats who share their taste for ethnic food and walkable neighborhoods. Increasingly, the two groups don't even run into each other, since their varying job choices and divergent leisure activities help to keep them separated.

Many people even seek out businesses and professionals based on partisan affiliation. In 2018, market research firm Branded Research reported that 61 percent of surveyed mental health therapy patients insisted that it is "very" or "somewhat" important that their therapist share their political views.

That immersion in samethink reinforces itself. "When cultural tastes in turn have a reciprocal effect on personal networks, such divisions are likely to be even further exaggerated, leading to a starkly divided world of latte-sipping liberals and bird-hunting conservatives," Daniel DellaPosta, Yongren Shi, and Michael Macy of Cornell University wrote in "Why Do Liberals Drink Lattes?" a paper published in 2015 in the American Journal of Sociology.

This sorting process is not scary in and of itself, except that we live in a country where government touches everything. This is why people who live very differently and have opposing political affiliations are fighting tooth and nail to control the levers of power. With the stakes so high, the alignment of lifestyle and partisan affiliation "has increased the emotional intensity of politics to the point that rival partisans not only have difficulty comprehending each other—they actually hate each other," Hetherington and Weiler write.

Pollsters say the proportions of Republicans and Democrats expressing not just opposition to but explicit hatred for adherents of the opposing partisan cult have more than doubled over the past two decades, to roughly half of each.

But not all of us have chosen a side. Some of us dislike them both but are perfectly willing and able to cross the boundaries of culture, lifestyle, and partisanship to socialize and do business. That's how I came to be a confidant to a fellow taekwondo dad as well as my friend in the Windy City. Each saw in me the fellowship that tribal adherents don't look for across partisan lines. They might not agree with me, or I with them, but we're not enemies.

Maybe there are lucrative opportunities in that ability to cross lines, or maybe we individualists will just accidentally find ourselves serving as social glue. It will be the ultimate irony if the only people bridging divides and holding the country together in the years to come are those of us too ornery to join our countrymen in their mutual loathing.