Stop Trying to Make "Partisan Prejudice" Happen

[Content Note: Bigotry.]

What is the moral imperative Americans have to "tolerate" people with with different political views than us, and in what contexts does this imperative extend?

The Atlantic ran a series of pieces last week on the concept of partisan prejudice implicitly arguing that Democrats ought to broadly "tolerate" Republicans in virtually all spheres of life, and vice versa.

In the first piece, "U.S. Counties Vary by Their Degree of Partisan Prejudice," Amanda Ripley, Rekha Tenjarla, and Angela Y. He discussed a ranking of US counties on purported "partisan prejudice." It begins (emphasis added):
We know that Americans have become more biased against one another based on partisan affiliation over the past several decades. Most of us now discriminate against members of the other political side explicitly and implicitly—in hiring, dating, and marriage, as well as judgments of patriotism, compassion, and even physical attractiveness, according to recent research.
So, right away the stage is set by conflating structural, sometimes-illegal discrimination (hiring) with personal preferences (romance, personal judgments, and perceptions of attractiveness), even though these types of "discrimination" are of different types. It is not discrimination, for instance, at least in the legal sense of making an unjust, unlawful distinction, for us to hold personal marriage standards, or even to think poorly of those who hold different political beliefs than us.

Yet, the authors don't interrogate the notion that "discrimination" in public and private spheres of life is in any way different, which invites readers to assume that all "discrimination" is bad all the time, because it's "intolerant."

The authors go on to assert that, after reviewing results from a survey of 2,000 adults, "the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves."

(This is called foreshadowing).

Now, take a look at the questions the survey posed, which can be found at PredictWise's blog:
  1. How would you react if a member of your immediate family married a Democrat?
  2. How would you react if a member of your immediate family married a Republican?
  3. How well does the term 'Patriotic' describe Democrats?
  4. How well does the term 'Selfish' describe Democrats?
  5. How well does the term 'Willing to compromise' describe Democrats?
  6. How well does the term 'Compassionate' describe Democrats?
  7. How well does the term 'Patriotic' describe Republicans?
  8. How well does the term 'Selfish' describe Republicans?
  9. How well does the term 'Willing to compromise' describe Republicans?
  10. How well does the term 'Compassionate' describe Republicans?
  11. How do you feel about the Republican Party today?
  12. How do you feel about the Democratic Party today?
  13. How do you feel about Democratic voters today?
  14. How do you feel about Republican voters today?
When I read this list, I wonder, is the survey truly measuring "intolerance" or something else? Like, say, reasonable perceptions of others based on their electoral support of political candidates who enact specific policies that impact human beings and society? Or, perhaps, some combination of the above plus perceptions of others based on media representations and distortions, personal interactions, and more?

It seems to be measuring something more complicated than "intolerance," both because intolerance suggests that people hold their beliefs unreasonably, and because of an important distinction between the political right and left in the United States, which I'll discuss momentarily.

Nonetheless, the results from these 2,000 surveys were then projected onto the hundreds of millions of people in the U.S., as follows:
Based on the survey results, Tobias Konitzer, the co-founder of PredictWise, investigated which demographic characteristics seemed to correlate with partisan prejudice. He found, for example, that age, race, urbanicity, partisan loyalty, and education did coincide with more prejudice (but gender did not). In this way, he created a kind of profile of contemporary partisan prejudice.

Next, Konitzer projected this profile onto the broader American population, under the assumption that people with similar demographics and levels of partisan loyalty, living in neighborhoods with comparable amounts of political diversity, tend to hold similar attitudes about political difference. He did this using voter files acquired by PredictWise from TargetSmart, a commercial vendor.
Did you know your voter file might be used in this way? Do you know what a voter file is and how data companies use them? Here's some background.

A companion piece was then published at The Atlantic, by Amanda Ripley, about Watertown, New York, entitled, "The Least Politically Prejudiced Place in America." From Ripley's piece (emphasis added):
...Watertown[, New York] is notable for another reason, officially unrecognized until now. It is located in one of the most politically tolerant counties in America, according to a first-of-its-kind analysis conducted for The Atlantic by PredictWise. Using an original national poll, voter-registration files, and other large data sets, PredictWise determined that Jefferson County and several nearby counties in the North Country are distinct from other parts of America. (See the accompanying story for more details about this analysis.) These are places where people can disagree on politics but still, it appears, give one another the benefit of the doubt.

Watertown is the seat of Jefferson County, a generally conservative place, which Trump won by 20 percentage points in 2016.
The U.S. Census population estimate of Watertown is 25,687, and 83% white.

Boom, and there it is.

What a gift this piece is to Republicans, especially Trump supporters, even if that wasn't necessarily the intent of the authors (I have no idea and won't speculate)!

To many Republicans, a conclusion like this very clearly affirms a worldview, and frequent talking point, that liberal elites in the big cities are the real bigots, particularly toward small-town conservative white people. Indeed, conservative blogger Rod Dreher, never one to pass up an opportunity to re-affirm this victim mentality, exclaimed just that about these Atlantic pieces:
What stood out the most to me, though, is that the people who are in charge of the media, and our cultural institutions, and the ones who bang on the most about 'diversity,' are pretty much extremely intolerant, monocultural white liberals. Whatever else you might say about him, Trump has these people figured out.
Of course. As I wrote last year:
It has long been part of the conservative playbook to leverage liberal and progressive values against us, so that we are so busy proving that we are consistent with certain abstract principles that we don't stop to question whether those principles should or should not be applicable to the situation at hand.
Here, the principle at hand is "tolerance," and many mainstream media journalists, desperately trying to appear neutral and objective, often play right into this game in their quest for appropriate balance. Consider this moral equivalence, from the writer of the Watertown, New York piece:
Meanwhile, everyone knew about the one kid at the school whose parents had voted for Trump. And that child knew they knew. Despite all the talk about tolerance and inclusion in my neighborhood, no one was in the mood to learn from this family. A few months after the election, the family packed up and moved to Florida.

That's one of the diabolical things about political prejudice. It is contagious.
Ah yes, despite all the talk about so-called tolerance and inclusion, nobody wanted to "learn" anything from the people who supported Donald Trump, who has admitted on tape to grabbing women's genitals without their consent, who led a racist birther movement against the nation's first Black president, who continues to lead "lock her up rallies" about the first woman to win the nomination of a major political party in the U.S., who is starkly unqualified for the office he holds, who possibly colluded with a foreign country to "win" an election, and continues to lead a xenophobic campaign against immigrants.

Check-mate, libs! Although, in this case, the author herself seems to be liberal, and urging us to be more compassionate toward Trump supporters, because that's the objective thing to do?

But, with all due respect who, pray tell, is anyone to tell me that I have things to learn from anyone who voted for all that Donald Trump represents? To the contrary, I argue that it is incumbent upon us to expose such false equivalences, with their implicit arguments that "both sides are just as bad," for what they are: False, offensive, and dangerous.

I refuse to heed calls to "learn" from Republicans particularly from anyone who is unwilling or unable to acknowledge the reality that Republicans are increasingly basing their political worldviews on complete falsehoods, often amplified to millions of people by Fox News.

Per Jane Mayer's recent in-depth profile of the ties between Trump's Republican Administration and Fox:
[Harvard Law School Professor Yochai] Benkler's assessment [of Fox News] is based on an analysis of millions of American news stories that he and two co-authors, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts, undertook for their 2018 book, Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation and Radicalization in American Politics. Benkler told me that he and his co-authors had expected to find "symmetric polarization" in the left-leaning and the right-leaning media outlets. Instead, they discovered that the two poles of America's media ecosystem function very differently. "It's not the right versus the left," Benkler says. "It's the right versus the rest."

Most American news outlets try to adhere to facts. When something proves erroneous, they run corrections, or, as Benkler and his co-authors write, "they check each other." Far-left Web sites post as many bogus stories as far-right ones do, but mainstream and liberal news organizations tend to ignore suspiciously extreme material. Conservative media outlets, however, focus more intently on confirming their audience's biases, and are much more susceptible to disinformation, propaganda, and outright falsehoods (as judged by neutral fact-checking organizations such as PolitiFact). Case studies conducted by the authors show that lies and distortions on the right spread easily from extremist Web sites to mass-media outlets such as Fox, and only occasionally get corrected.

When falsehoods are exposed, core viewers often react angrily.
I understand the impulse to express concern about partisan rancor "these days" and that some people might want to snap others out of it by pushing for a "can't we all just get along" model of civility. But, I think a lot about the in-fighting on the moderate-to-left side of the political spectrum, which feels especially bad now. It seems that many on the left argue so much with each other, in part, because arguing with people on the right can feel so completely hopeless given that we are often living within completely different realities or "realities," as the case may be.

The partisan divides in the U.S. are enormous, structural, and deliberately stoked by politicians and foreign agents alike. So much so that it's actually pretty offensive to think that individualistic solutions like calls to learn things from an 83% white, rural Trump-supporting town is really getting at the crux of the enormous divides in our nation. It's just a larger-scale version of that never-ending stream of  post-2016 "Trump supporters in a diner" pieces, except now I guess we're doing that with towns.

And sure, the political and civic change starts with all of us trying to be better, more decent people, but I think it's wiser — and more just particularly to the marginalized — to balance calls for civility with both personal safety and what's ultimately best for society as a whole. I think it's remarkably dangerous to promote this notion that we must "tolerate" — even in our personal lives — those who traffic in and spread misinformation and bigotry under this purported social good of "partisan tolerance," because ultimately such calls for tolerance are really calls to settle for injustice in order to keep the peace.

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