Love in a Time of Polarization

In an era when talking across the aisle is rare, dating across it might seem inconceivable to some. Over the past few decades, the importance placed on shared political affiliation has steadily risen as politics has become more partisan. As we consider the future of American democracy, we must consider the long-term implications of bifurcated dating pools: one blue, one red. 

There is ample evidence for this division of the hearts. According to a 2020 survey by Match, an online dating website, the percentage of singles who believe it’s not possible to date a person of the opposite political affiliation increased from about a third in 2012 to more than half in 2020. Research from Pew Research Center in April 2020 already reported that having voted for President Trump would be a dealbreaker for more than 70% of Democratic voters and having voted for Hillary Clinton would turn off 47% of Republicans. A YouGov/Economist poll taken in September 2020 found that 45% of respondents would not date someone from the opposite party—and the vast majority of them (86%) think it has become tougher to date someone on the other side of the political divide. 

A more recent Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2022 found that 53% of Americans who have used online dating apps in the past year reported that being able to see political affiliation was at least somewhat important to them, a 13% rise since the question was asked in 2019. Many dating apps accommodate these preferences for in-group dating. Just as users can display their job titles, education levels, religious beliefs, hometowns, languages, dating intentions and drug preferences, they can also include their “politics” on their profile. Other examples are more explicitly tied to party politics. In 2016, Bumble launched its political digital “bumper stickers,” which featured Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and, of course, Trump. Later iterations have since featured the candidates relevant to each election cycle. 

The popularity of these categories exhibits how political values are now woven into our intimate relationships. But do they really show that people are resistant to partners who do not share their political party affiliation? Or is “politics” a proxy for the potential partner’s future behavior in a relationship? A self-declared ‘liberal’, for example, might be deemed more willing to wear a mask amidst a global pandemic, especially when paired with a strategically-placed message about their vaccination status. In 2021, proof of vaccination became a new display of courtship for certain demographics. According to Tinder’s a Year in Swipe 2021, mentions of “Vaxxed” in bios in the U.S. grew by over 3x as vaccine status became a dating non-negotiable for many singles. Moreover, vaccine badges from Tinder became the new flaunt feature with the badge being the most popular by far amongst US Gen Z members. 

The social capital of liberal signaling on dating profiles, refrains like “Trump supporters swipe left”, and filtering features that let people weed out matches who don’t meet their political, astrological, or lifestyle preferences have come to be perceived by right-leaning folk as anti-conservative discrimination. In response, a crop of conservative dating startups have launched. To take one example, The Right Stuff was created by former Trump aide John McEntee (with financial backing from right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel) “for conservatives to connect in authentic and meaningful ways.” It promises to bring people together with shared values and similar passions, ensuring users “view profiles without pronouns” and are able to “connect with people who aren’t offended by everything.” The app drew immediate attention for its minimal uptake among female users, as well as its restriction to heterosexual audiences. Separately, it also caught the attention of the FBI after it reportedly leaked its users’ data on the day of its launch.

According to a joint study conducted by Stanford University and University of Mexico sociologists in 2019, about 39% of male-female relationships in the United States start online. Smaller shares of people are meeting their significant others in bars, coffeeshops, workplaces, commutes, and other locales of generations past. Dating apps offer safety. And though we might be nostalgic for the romance of a “meet-cute”, online dating lets us screen potential matches by interests, personality, lifestyle, (and yes, politics) rather than physical appearance alone. Surely that information is of some value?

Yet it is this safety net that bleaches the eros of romance from our relationships. In his book In Praise of Love, French philosopher Alain Badiou presents an impassioned defense of both love as a human faculty and love as a worthwhile philosophical pursuit. He describes love as a “quest for truth” and key to an expansive shared universe of truth. He writes:

“We shouldn’t underestimate the power love possesses to slice diagonally through the most powerful oppositions and radical separations. The encounter between two differences is an event, is contingent and disconcerting… On the basis of this event, love can start and flourish. It is the first, absolutely essential point. This surprise unleashes a process that is basically an experience of getting to know the world. Love isn’t simply about two people meeting and their inward-looking relationship: it is a construction, a life that is being made, no longer from the perspective of One but from the perspective of Two.”

For Badiou, love is a unifying philosophy that yields truth. By eliminating risk and present potential partners side-by-side like products on a shelf, dating-app culture threatens love’s unifying potential. Moreover, Badiou’s philosophy can be extrapolated from the personal to the societal. While love might bring us together, culling differences from our interpersonal relationships will tear us apart. If people are increasingly filtering out potential matches with partners who do not share their political identities, then we can expect amplified polarization through the creation of homogenous social networks and households. Simply put, algorithmic love risks aggravating pre-existing divisions in our hearts, minds and country.

Categories: Culture

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