SAN DIEGO — “People don’t care about politics.”
I say this all the time, in speeches, meetings and casual conversation. What I mean is that most people don’t care about politics. Especially if they don’t live in Washington, or work for the Obama administration or on Capitol Hill.
And, especially if it is what political reporters consider the off-season, a year without a midterm or presidential election.
My assertion is usually followed by another sentence, explaining what people care about much more than politics — family, education, jobs, health, religion, community. Those are tangible issues that directly impact people’s lives.
And here’s why people don’t care. Public cynicism about politics is at an all-time high, and the approval ratings for Congress at a record low. Many Americans have become disillusioned with both parties and have concluded that, in this game, dishonesty is rampant and the only interests politicians serve are their own.
Now, I may have to rethink my position. What if Americans really do care about politics and conflicting ideologies? And, in fact, what if they care so much that they’re willing to go to the extreme lengths of actually packing up and moving from one county or state to another to surround themselves with like-minded folks.
This is exactly what is happening, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Virginia. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that people adjust to their surroundings — that, for instance, someone living in a liberal city will gradually become more liberal — psychology professor Brian Nosek suggests that people are actually much more active participants in the process. It’s not the geography that determines one’s politics, the study says. It’s one’s politics that often determine the geography.
As Nosek explained during an interview with National Public Radio, he has been tracking more than a million Americans as they relocate — as about 50 million of us do each year — while also keeping an eye on their political orientation.
“What we found is that people’s current ZIP code was more aligned with their ideology than their past one,” he said. “So, liberals who had lived in more conservative districts were more likely to now live in more liberal ZIP codes, and vice versa for conservatives.”
This research could help explain why America is divided up into red states and blue states, with a few purple states in between. It didn’t just happen organically. Individuals made it happen.
Imagine how this plays out in your world. You find yourself at a neighborhood gathering, talking politics with the guy who lives next door. It turns out that the two of you are divided on issues such as Obamacare or immigration or abortion. Not only is the neighbor likely to politely drift away from you at the party, under the pretense of freshening his drink.
But is it possible, if a lot of other neighbors think like you, that he might eventually put a “For Sale” sign in his front yard?
It’s not so far-fetched. This is the age of being comfortable in your surroundings. Americans think they’re entitled to a good life, and part of what makes life good is a lack of stress. And it can be stressful to be around people who disagree with your politics. It’s part of a larger trend. Many Americans slip into cocoons by watching only a liberal or conservative cable news channel. Readers tell me that they’ll stop reading me, if we don’t agree more often.
A few months ago, researchers at Tufts University studied the media and found that some of the most popular programs on radio and television were “outrage-based” shows that the scholars defined as “safe havens from the tense exchanges that they associate with cross-cutting political talk they may encounter with neighbors, colleagues and community members.” Loyal viewers and listeners were wedded to favorite shows because they saw the hosts as kindred spirits who understood them when others didn’t.
Americans have become more resistant to considering different points of view or even, it seems, being in close proximity to those who hold them. It’s a harmful trend, and a clear recipe for atrophied thinking and a dysfunctional citizenry. We should never stop challenging our beliefs.
Now that we know this is happening, there is only question: How do we stop it?
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.