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Navigating your relationships with people of different political beliefs than you

It can be done and these relationships can benefit us

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Navigating your relationships with people of different political beliefs than you

Trump or Biden. Pro-life or pro-choice. Climate change is real or a hoax. You’ve got to be one or the other, right?

We’ve been living in a state of intense political division for quite some time now, and we are seeing these tensions boil over into terrifying events — one being the attack on the Capitol in January.

We can see this tension and polarization in the news and in social media. People consume what they want to hear and reject what they don’t like. At first glance, this seems harmless because there is an entire nation that is doing the exact same thing. Notwithstanding these echo chambers, I would argue that it’s our close “bubbles” that most validate our political narrow-mindedness.

This term “bubble” describes the idea that we surround ourselves with people similar to us, in more ways than one, but in this context, I’m talking about politics.

Let’s take being a UW student, for example. While I understand that there are exceptions to this scenario, more often than not, students here will be surrounded by a very blue, or even a very intensely liberal bubble, given student demographics and the fact that we live in one of the bluest cities in the country.

“If you never interact with anybody other than your own narrow group, you end up with a highly distorted view of people who are not in your group,” political science professor Mark A. Smith said.

Contact hypothesis describes the idea that if we are more frequently exposed to people different from us, we are more likely to understand people who are different from us and have less prejudices against them and their views.

“This ties in with other works like, for example, Robert Putnam[‘s] ‘Bowling Alone,’” Smith said. “We [the United States] have less community than we used to, there are fewer organizations and opportunities for people to interact with a broad cross section of other people, we just have less community ties in general.”

These community ties can mean things like religious communities, schools, workplaces, sports, and any community where you could have the opportunity to interact with someone of a different class, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, political belief, or other social factor.

When it comes down to who we date, it’s no different. We often follow this same equation of finding someone who fits into our bubble. So how do you deal with dating someone who is not in your political bubble, and should we be pushing ourselves out of our bubbles?

The short answer? It depends.

“Do you share the same values, but just disagree on how they will be accomplished? Or do you not have the same value[s]?” sociology professor Pepper Schwartz said. “Let’s say, one of you feels that you want to change poverty by having people have to work, and another person feels that’s inhumane, [that] what we need is to give them support. The shared value is that you want people out of poverty, and you want to help them find a way. You can disagree deeply on what would be effective, but you do share the same value.”

The time will eventually come with any relationship that is looking to get serious — especially in an intimate relationship — to have a conversation about your differences.

Some political topics do not cross the line of challenging these basic values, but some do, and when our differences are on a basis of experience or identity, it can render these conversations incredibly difficult.

“Let’s say the issue [is] immigration, and you come from an immigrant family, and you believe there should be more open borders and easier ways to become a citizen, and this is very near and dear to your heart,” Schwartz said. “Whereas somebody [else] may have a theoretical feeling about it, because they don’t have the same background. They might say, ‘We have to have tougher borders.’ That's something that is really key to how you’ve grown up and you may not be able to deal with that.”

In some extreme cases, you may feel that someone’s views attack who you are as a person, in possibly a sexist, racist, or homophobic way, and these kinds of things are, for some people, too problematic to look past.

“It's not just that people are polarized, but they seem to be very self-righteous, in their opinion. They don’t go after the argument, they go after the person,” Schwartz said. “You can't talk if somebody says you’re a bad person — you can talk if somebody thinks you have a bad idea.”

Having these conversations cannot just be lecturing another person — it has to be a time to listen and attempt to have an understanding of what that other person believes, communicating with them as one human being to another.

“Exposure to other ideas does change them. I’ve read countless things about people who were brought up in religious cults, and that's all they believed until other people talk to them, and they could kind of evaluate those things,” Schwarz said. “I don't think everyone's unreachable. If we’re talking about ideas and trading worldviews, as opposed to just hating each other.”

Having the intention to listen and learn is important because whether or not we want to admit it, we do live in a political environment where people are consciously or subconsciously existing in echo chambers.

“I would say that it's become easier to segment your life than it used to be, especially through media and information consumption,” Smith said. “Now the media environment is much more polarized. It's very easy to just consume your own kind of media, and get a view of the world that totally ignores what other information other people are being exposed to.”

We have intensely adopted this instinct of living in a bubble so much — whether unintentionally or intentionally — but it hasn’t always been this way.

People used to be able to separate their different identities — religion, politics, culture, gender, sexual orientation — but nowadays, these identities are becoming more tightly knit with our political identity.

One of the reasons for this is the contact hypothesis — the idea that we are not exposing ourselves to enough diversity. The other reason has to do with the media and not about what media we are choosing to consume, but the fact that the media itself is almost always biased in a way it didn't used to be.

“These days, the New York Times has a very clear [liberal] ideological edge that it didn't have even 10 years ago,” Smith said. “It has evolved into a place where it's like part of the blue tribe, if you will.”

Some people might be wondering — do we even need to fix this polarization? Is this such a bad thing? Do I need to venture outside of my political bubble?

The answer is yes, and this polarization, more often than not, is not in your best interest. It is in our best interest to be a part of a society that allows differing opinions, as this harbors improvement and innovation in an effort to compromise.

Let me also make it clear that I understand that our ability to have strong, varying opinions is a key factor in what has allowed us to live in what we call a democratic state all these years.

However, even knowing this, we have become too divided, too polarized, and completely unwilling to listen –– this is not in our best interest.

When we become unwilling to listen to one another, we are unable to make compromises, and, quite literally, with the way the U.S. government is set up, we cannot get anything done with this kind of mindset.

Making an effort to step outside your political bubble, whether that be in very surface-level relationships, such as in your workplace, school, or very intimate relationships, can benefit you deeply, and it can benefit the general well-being of our country's stability.

By showing people that you have a genuine interest in listening to their views, others will, hopefully, have a genuine interest in yours as well, and in turn, you both open up the door to someone understanding you more and you get the chance to gain a perspective you perhaps did not understand before.

Reach writer Mary Murphy at Twitter: @marymurphy301

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(2) comments


Nice article, Mary.

The reality is that it is not 2004 anymore where people across the aisle can hold hands. We live in an age of gotcha moments and viral take downs. Students are not incentivized to seek out other viewpoints, and that is to their own detriment. You could have a well thought out position but it lands on deaf ears anyways because of the association between morals and politics.

Personally, I find that reading and listening to a variety of worldviews produces a balanced perspective. Taking a step back can show you how both sides fall into the same idiosyncrasies.


This is probably the most level-headed comment I’ve seen anyone make in years, especially at UW.

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