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September 07, 2013 4:03 PM Drinks and a Movie

The politics of dating.

By Max Ehrenfreund

It’s Saturday afternoon, and the weather is spectacular, at least here in Washington. It’s really far too good of a day to be spent at a computer reading and writing blog posts, so this will be my last one until tomorrow.

I hope at least some of you will be able to get out this evening, though I’m not as concerned about it as Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz. In an article in Pacific Standard last month, she argued that too many of us are spending too much time at our computers and not using our Saturday nights to, well, meet people our own age, as they say.

Pearson-Merkowitz’s topic is online dating, which, she writes, spells doom for democracy:

People who use Internet dating sites are choosing who to date based on criteria that are highly correlated with political preferences, according to a study published in the most recent edition of the academic journal Political Behavior. As a result, the study suggests, there may be long-term consequences for political polarization: not only are such couples more likely to move to the ideological extremes because they lack access to contradictory opinions, they also are likely to produce children who hold ideologically extreme positions. The end result is a more polarized America where more and more people cannot understand how others could possibly think differently from themselves.

Well, why do you hate America? Close up your computer and hit the dance floor.

There are a number of problems with this argument. Nora Caplan-Bricker elegantly lays out a few possible objections, but the most interesting one to me is that polarization appears to be a temporary phenomenon. There are signs that it is waning already.

Republicans, and Democrats to a small extent, are divided on immigration reform. The House vote on the Amash-Conyers Amendment showed that party affiliation has little to do with support for the National Security Agency or its activities. More Republicans believe gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry. If someone tells you she’s a Democrat, you know very little about what she thinks federal fiscal policy should be. Maybe she agrees with President Obama’s attempts to reduce spending while increasing taxes, or maybe she reads Paul Krugman. On the question of whether the United States should intervene in Syria, Republicans and Democrats seem more or less united in opposition. (But I’m done writing about Syria.)

Party affiliation has not been a reliable indicator of a person’s views on any of the most important problems confronting our society this year. These changes are partly a result of the fact that after their defeat in last year’s election, some Republicans are worried about their party’s electoral prospects in the long term. The shift is also a product of a changing and growing society, confronting new issues and looking at old ones with a different perspective. The Iraq War changed our views on foreign policy, and the crisis in Europe has altered (skewed, I would argue) our views on fiscal policy. Neither party’s traditional values provide much guidance for how to think about an intelligence apparatus of a scope that was unimaginable even twenty years ago.

For the past few months, these changes have made politics fascinatingly unpredictable. They also mean that if a person is searching for a romantic partner, online or at the club, neither stated party affiliation or any other trait will probably tell her what a potential love interest believes about several important issues. The consequence is more disagreement, more awkwardness, and, best of all, a more resilient democracy.

I’ll be online again tomorrow morning.

Max Ehrenfreund is a former Monthly intern and a reporter at The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter: @MaxEhrenfreund

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