The polarization of American life and the growing divide between red and blue over the past half-century were driven by identity. Rather than differing politics being akin to fans of two rival sports teams having a friendly argument over some beers, the American system is now a blood feud between two sides who despise each other; the opposition is perceived as against, if not out to destroy, everything good and decent. For Democrats and progressives, who’ve been told by conservatives, for decades, that we’re going to hell and are on the side of “evil,” it’s difficult not to have some hard feelings when the GOP resorts to domestic terrorism when they don’t get their way. The more things have slid in this direction the more the cultural aspects of this conflict have bled over into multiple aspects of everyday life and people have segmented themselves away from opposing views.
To be a Democrat or to be a Republican is a statement about a person’s character, especially after the Trump years. Politics are no longer about spending and tax policy; but a cultural struggle over the future of the country; each side thinks the other is dangerous and fundamentally destructive to the American way of life. The last four years have pushed this cultural division even further, to the point where we just witnessed sedition, insurrection, and the attempted undermining of a presidential election.
With Valentine’s Day upon us, it’s worth reflecting on how this dynamic plays out with those looking for love, and how it intersects with what conservatives currently lament as “cancel culture.”
People in relationships don’t have to agree on everything. Half the time, couples can’t even agree on where to eat. The very nature of relationships is built on trust and choosing someone to go through life together, grow with, maybe add some kids into the mix, and doing that with someone who has diametrically different values might be problematic. Marriage and family relationships have long been shown to be an influence on voting patterns, with a discernible gap between how married and single women vote. This occurs as Americans are increasingly gravitating towards people like themselves in choosing partners and communities with a similar education level, income potential, lifestyle, and personal beliefs, and singles have become less and less likely to date someone with differing political opinions.
It’s one thing to think someone is wrong about fiscal policy or tax cuts. People can disagree about the correct courses of action and the math. However, it’s another thing to decry those who believe in a woman’s right to choose as baby killers, or to support denying equal rights for members of the LGBTQ+ community. For progressives, it’s likely a bit much to lay one’s head next to a person who supports what we consider to be wrong with America. It’s an even larger ask to imagine raising a child with someone who believes women don’t have a right to control their bodies. How do you plan a family with someone who would tell a gay or transgender child that who they are is wrong?
Since the era of Trump, the answer seems to be: You don’t.
A 2019 Pew Research poll found being a Trump supporter or a Republican was more dissuasive to a potential date than racial, age, religious or financial differences, with almost half the survey (47%) saying a vote for Trump would either probably or certainly be a deal breaker. Among Democrats, a strong majority (71%) state they would probably or definitely not consider a serious relationship with a Trump supporter. The poll also found people associate attributes such as “closed-minded” and “immoral” with those of the opposing political ideology.
Conservatives, when confronted by those who disagree, either retreat to a bubble that reinforces their viewpoint, or they complain—loudly—that they’re the ones being wronged. At the root of this is a sense of entitlement; the intolerant demand to be tolerated, and even embraced, by those they condemn.
Four years ago, The Federalist published an article declaring that American women were responsible for Donald Trump's presidency—because they refused to date conservative men. Writer Jerrod Laber argued that “tribalism” and a refusal to give Trump-loving men a chance is part of the polarization of political culture. If women would just offer their bodies to dudes who don’t believe they’re entitled to control of those bodies for … um, the sake of bipartisanship, than the orange demagogue might not have won! I will say this kind of thinking is consistent with the batshit I expect from The Federalist.
That Federalist column led to a rather incisive blog post by dating coach Harris O’Malley, who writes an advice column as “Dr. Nerdlove.” The thrust of O’Malley’s response? Why are people surprised others don’t want to waste their time being around awful human beings?
(Laber’s) entire argument is “well, you should fuck us because REASONS.” There is no exhortation to the Federalist audience to actually do things that might make them more appealing to women, liberal women in particular … One major reason why women don’t want to date Laber or his friends has everything to do with the fact that it’s rather clear that Laber doesn’t actually like women. He may think they’re desirable. He may believe that women make life worth living. But it’s impossible to escape the impression he neither likes nor respects them. Not when his argument ultimately boils down to the fact that men are evidently willing to vote for Trump because liberal women won’t fuck their pain away. If women were more willing to give it up, they might have moderated their views and voted for … I dunno, Ted Cruz or something.
At the end of the day, however, it’s still a case of “give us the pussy or else.” It’s a threat, one that’s ultimately not that far off from Elliot Roger or his ilk: “We aren’t getting what we want, therefore we’re justified in what we’ll do in revenge.”
And that, more than anything else, is an amazing indicator of why women don’t want to date him or his friends: because that’s a fucking horrifying attitude to have. Treating sex as something that you have to be given or who knows what may happen is the mark of someone who, frankly, is kind of awful. It’s the sort of argument that gets made by the incel community … It’s not terribly surprising ... why so many incels find themselves, well, celibate. Nobody is remotely interested in having sex with someone who thinks that they’re beyond contempt. And despite what many people will tell you: That attitude is incredibly difficult to hide or cover up.
The inability to hide those mindsets is reflected in attitudes about politics and dating. In short, the widening political divisions which have defined the Trump era has made dating a minefield for people of dissimilar politics. The outlook was especially bad for MAGA devotees looking for love; it’s no stretch to guess that has only gotten worse since the insurrection.
According to a Jan. 2020 poll from the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), large majorities of both Trump supporters and those with an unfavorable opinion of Donald Trump felt dating the other side was impossible. Eight in 10 Democratic women said they would not consider dating someone who disagreed with them about Donald Trump. Among the political issues in the poll, abortion was the most hot-button topic where the largest segment of the public (24%) stated they could not see themselves with someone who had a different view. However, the AEI results claim that the question of whether a couple’s views on having children align is more important to the public than whether their politics match.
These results are also consistent with other surveys, including those taken by dating apps. Match found the number of people stating politics was important to their dating choices had risen from only a third of the public in 2012 to being a majority position in 2020. A survey of OKCupid users in the first year of his term found that 83% thought how someone feels about Donald Trump was important; 74% felt that support of Donald Trump was a dealbreaker in dating. According to a survey from hookup app Tinder, 71% of online daters and 66% of singles who meet people the old-fashioned way consider conflicting political ideology a dealbreaker for a relationship.
During the second year of the Trump administration, a widely-read POLITICO story documented young staffers in the Trump administration who claimed they had to hide their affiliation with the president from potential dates. A 31-year-old official said her experience with dating apps usually ends badly “very, very frequently.” One possible match asked her, “Do you rip babies from their mothers and then send them to Mexico?” after he learned she worked in the administration.
Another explained his mastery of the bait and switch.
Young staffers have had to develop a keen sense of just when to have “The Talk” with romantic partners. “I’ve still been able to hook up with women,” says a male former White House staffer. “But I know that I need to be careful about broaching the Trump stuff. I just know that going in, I need to be able to get it out at the right time and not get it out too early to the point where it’s like, ‘Hey, I worked for Trump, you should stop talking to me,’ but late enough in that eventually they know that there is this information floating out there that I worked for this guy and hopefully you have now seen that I’m not a horrible person and we can go further with this.”
Many of the young staffers retreated into Trump-friendly circles.
These responses, of course, are consistent with how they react to any criticism: Whine about being treated unfairly, claim they’re the victims, run off to their own safe space, where like-minded voices reinforce their views. Just as Parler and Gab tried to fill the Twitter hole for rejected right-wingers, conservative dating apps attempted (and failed) to connect lonely MAGA supporters throughout Trump’s term.
A 2019 article by Rainesford Stauffer for GQ explored self-presentation on dating apps with a focus on political signaling. People make snap judgments about a person through their profile’s pictures and words. When it comes to today’s politics, Stauffer notes that there’s no second chance for those making the wrong first impression ... and that knife cuts both ways.
Because partisan identification has inched even closer in alignment to social identity, now when someone says they’re a Republican or Democrat, we take that to represent an approximation of their entire worldview. Then we use that to make further inferences (and predict potential landmines) about the future of the relationship—will this person split housework equally with me? Would they be open to living abroad? Would they want our family to attend church every week? Of course, you can’t glean all of this from a singular label, but you could probably make some educated guesses.
Due to the substantial importance placed on political identity, even seemingly benign signposts can take on a political bent. Some people I talked to for this story admitted they side-eye pictures featuring guns or someone decked out in hunting garb, interpreting them less as snapshots of a hobby and more as a proclamation of a potential match’s feelings about the Second Amendment. Others confessed they bristled at pictures featuring “pussy hats,” which have come to be synonymous with Women’s Marches, or phrases like #MeToo appearing in men’s bios, even if feminism and women’s rights were causes they considered important themselves.
One person I spoke to, Elly, 24, feels the need to put more explicit political statements in her profile to give people clarity on what matters to her. Her bio invites interested parties to “talk to me about prison abolition and Taco Bell,” a half-joke that says something about how left she is, because it rules out people who might not share what for her is a fundamental perspective.
Surely someone is successfully reaching across the aisle towards the one they love. After all, one in 10 people, registered to either party, is married to someone in the opposing party. What is it about those unlikely couples who mix red and blue in these polarized times, and somehow make it work, even as they face skepticism and questions about how deeply they believe their chosen ideology?
The New York Times’ Claire Cain Miller interviewed couples in “politically mixed marriages” back in October, many couples indicated that they dealt with the differences by not talking about it. That for those couples, they did find a way to agree to disagree, as conservatives are wont to request. This tracks with a previous Times article by Josephine Sedgwick detailing the behavior of couples with opposing political views halfway into Trump’s presidency. One woman, married to a Trump supporter for 11 years, reflected on the aftermath of the 2016 election.
(W)ith tears in my eyes, I told Nisim we were going to have to get divorced because I could not live with him for the next four years. He said, “Honey, we’re not going to get divorced. We’re just not going to talk about politics for the next four years.”
We’re now 15 months post-election and, for the most part, that’s how we’ve handled it. If the worst thing about him is that he supports Trump (although, I should mention, not on everything), then I'm pretty lucky.
A Colorado woman shared the stress of the opposite approach.
I would prefer not to talk about it, but he loves to debate. It gives me daily anxiety to try and formulate my side of the argument before it happens, and I breathe a slight sigh of relief if it doesn’t end up being a topic of conversation.
I worry that my husband’s values, as reflected by his political beliefs, no longer align with mine. It makes me worried about raising our son and the longevity of our relationship.
A Florida man—an independent who voted for Barack Obama in 2008—took a wholly different approach with his “staunch Republican” wife, who’d slept through the historic landslide win. Before going to bed himself, he decorated their yard with campaign signs.
When she left for work in the dark at 4:30 a.m. she backed her car out of the garage and was horrified to see her yard covered in Obama signs. She jumped out of the car, snatched them all up, got back in the car and hit the button to close the garage door.
Then she saw the 4x8-foot sign slowly emerge, taped to the garage door.
All jokes aside, though, as this satire piece truthfully notes, “Nobody is neutral about Donald Trump,” which goes for Trumpism, which is still deeply entrenched, as the right continues to be the party of greed, conspiracy theories, and cruelty. Where we fall on the political spectrum says so much about who we are and the world we want to live in, especially after the last four years, not to mention the last four months. The days where perceived differences between Democrats and Republicans didn’t define us are deep in the rearview. For progressives especially, a person who voted for Trump is viewed as a person that on some level rationalized away so many lies, so many racist dog whistles, so much vitriol and violence, or worse, fully embraced them. Is it any surprise Democrats report an unwillingness to look past that in pursuit of a new relationship? Would you?
“Till death do you part” is supposed to be a very long time, after all. Having to wake up every day laying beside someone who admires Tucker Carlson is just too much for some people.
Happy Valentine’s Day!