Back in the 1980s, when I was single and looking, I went on a first date with a woman who was in the microbiology graduate program at MIT. I no longer remember how we met or where we went that evening, but even after all these years I vividly remember how the date abruptly crashed.
The conversation had meandered into politics and my companion asked if there was a potential presidential candidate I liked. Indeed there was: I told her I was a fan of Jack Kemp, the former Buffalo Bills quarterback who had become a Republican congressman from New York. Half libertarian, half “bleeding-heart conservative,” Kemp was considering a run for the White House, and I hoped he would go for it.
My date was appalled. She wanted nothing to do, she heatedly said, with someone who could support the likes of Kemp. Our first and only date quickly came to an end.
The experience left me baffled, for two reasons. One was that I truly couldn’t understand how a political figure like Kemp — a man of integrity, commitment, intellectual curiosity, and optimism — could possibly inspire such animosity. The other was that I had never before gone out with someone for whom a deviation in political outlook outweighed everything we might have in common. I was certainly used to political disagreements with my peers. But to recoil from the prospect of getting to know someone just because they voted differently? That was a first.
Now it’s normal.
NBC News reported last week on the findings of a new survey of second-year college students it conducted with Generation Lab, a polling firm that specializes in young people’s views and behavior. Of the survey’s 21 questions, three focused on the willingness of respondents to make a connection with someone who supported a different presidential candidate than they did in the last election. The results indicate a generation far more likely to see political dissimilarity the way my long-ago date did: as an automatic deal-breaker.
Asked whether they would choose to be roommates with someone who voted differently in 2020, nearly half said they probably or definitely would not. That antipathy was especially intense among Democrats, a combined 62 percent of whom said “probably not” or “definitely not.” But even among self-identified Republicans and independents, the refusal to room with someone from the other side of the political aisle was well into double digits.
The results were even more pronounced when respondents were asked if they would go on a date with someone who voted differently the last time around: A combined 53 percent said they would not. As for marriage, nearly two-thirds — 63 percent — said they could not imagine marrying someone whose choice for president diverged from theirs.
Given the state of contemporary America, it is hard to be surprised by these results, which roughly parallel what other surveys have found. Evidence of our political, cultural, and social abyss abounds, especially for those who spend an inordinate amount of time on social media. Still, of all the ways in which college has been transformed over the past generation, this has to be the saddest. Life eventually wraps most of us in a cocoon of familiar faces, ideas, and experiences. But one of the great blessings of college and early adulthood ought to be the chance to be exposed to new faces, ideas, and backgrounds — to encounter people with different upbringings and beliefs, and, just maybe, be enriched by the experience.
When I was in college, I never had roommates whose political views lined up with my own and never thought there was something wrong with that arrangement. I am friendly to this day with the freshman roommate who was (and remains) a passionate liberal, the one who constantly played Tom Paxton protest songs and avidly supported Jerry Brown for president. I concede that I didn’t form the same bond with another roommate, the one who kept a copy of Mao Zedong’s “little red book” of quotations on his dresser. Still, even he and his outlandish views contributed something meaningful to my experience.
That isn’t possible when politics take priority over everything else. As it becomes more and more unthinkable today to share a dorm room, go on a date, or contemplate tying the knot with someone whose politics aren’t a close match, Americans will have less and less to say to each other. Division, discord, and distrust are already at crisis levels in this country. I shudder to imagine where we are headed as the current generation of college students comes of age.