Bursting the Partisan Bubble: Does the Solution Start Locally?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because living in bubbles can lead to unwelcome surprises.
A lawyer in rural Lewis County, J. Vander Stoep drove up to Seattle a few years ago for the wedding of his sister, a professor at the University of Washington. Despite the occasion being a family one, Vander Stoep knew he would be the black sheep in one very real way: He was a novelty amid the few hundred friends gathered, almost all of whom were liberal. He remembers one 40-something professional approaching him, and asking if he really was a Republican: “He said, ‘I don’t know a Republican.’ It was like I was a Martian.”
That novelty wasn’t always the case, even in the progressive Pacific Northwest. Vander Stoep remembers how, years ago, as a candidate for office he would often knock on doors where one spouse was a Republican and the other was a Democrat, and they would joke about canceling each other’s votes. But such cross-partisan pairings are rare today — only a tenth of married households, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight. In the 1950s, only 1 in 10 Americans said they would be troubled if their child married across party lines; today, 1 in 4 worry about it.
If nuanced political chats aren’t happening at home, they certainly aren’t happening in the nation’s heated halls of government. Yet without those conversations, the partisan divide is bound to multiply. For the sake of democracy, let’s start popping the bubble — by mandating a Designated Democrat- or Republican-in-Residence on any municipality that lacks ideological diversity.
Differences in opinion are now seen as differences in moral character.…
Rural red city councils and utility boards might toss in that Ivy League liberal who just returned from college, while urban blue school associations and county commissions invite a conservative neighbor — filling any level of government or public service where political dominance has partisans talking only to themselves.
We can’t take credit for the germ of the idea, which was floated recently by Danny Westneat, a columnist for The Seattle Times, after locals inundated his inbox with confessions of their deepest, dark secret: that they were conservative. The conversation spun out from a City Hall meeting at which Kshama Sawant — one of the only elected socialists in the nation — seemed to say that not only did she disagree with Republicans but also she refused to have any as friends. While Sawant later clarified that her red-line stance applied specifically to Republican politicians, the truthiness of the remark resonated in an age where millennials announce in their Tinder profiles to swipe left (aka pass) if you voted for Donald Trump. Like scholars-in-residence or guest lecturers, the point of having a non-voting member of the public present would be to provide a different perspective to the problems of the day.
Of course, that voice may just be ignored as well. The larger political divide is being waged online, what Vander Stoep describes as “the way we self-select on social media.” On a host of issues, differences in opinion are now seen as differences in moral character, what University of Kentucky political scientist Stephen Voss describes to OZY as “the moralization of politics.” It’s difficult for many to imagine being chummy with those whose ethics offend them.
At the very least, cross-aisle ambassadors would allow partisans to say, without a hint of irony, at their next homogenous cocktail party, “Well, I have a friend who is …”