An insignificant minority seldom or never meet people from another race, and they prize sameness, not difference.
Most Americans do not live in a totalizing bubble. They regularly encounter people of different races, ideologies, and religions. For the most part, they view these interactions as positive, or at least neutral.
Yet according to a new study by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and The Atlantic, a significant minority of Americans do not live this way. They seldom or never meet people of another race. They dislike interacting with people who don’t share their political beliefs. And when they imagine the life they want for their children, they prize sameness, not difference. Education and geography seemed to make a big difference in how people think about these issues, and in some cases, so did age.
One of the many questions the Trump era has raised is whether Americans actually want a pluralistic society, where people are free to be themselves and still live side by side with others who aren’t like them. U.S. political discourse is filled with nasty rhetoric that rejects the value of diversity outright. Yet, theoretically, pluralism is good for democracy: In a political era when the vast majority of Americans believe the country is divided over issues of race, politics, and religion, relationships across lines of difference could foster empathy and civility. These survey results suggest that Americans are deeply ambivalent about the role of diversity in their families, friendships, and civic communities. Some people, it seems, prefer to stay in their bubble.
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In terms of both geography and culture, America is largely sorted by political identity. In a representative, random survey of slightly more than 1,000 people taken in December, PRRI and The Atlantic found that just under a quarter of Americans say they seldom or never interact with people who don’t share their partisan affiliation. Black and Hispanic people were more likely than whites to describe their lives this way, although education made a big difference among whites: 27 percent of non-college-educated whites said they seldom or never encounter people from a different political party, compared with just 6 percent of college-educated whites.
Even those Americans who regularly encounter political diversity don’t necessarily choose it, however. Democrats, independents, and Republicans seem to mingle most in spaces where people don’t have much of an option about being there. According to the survey, roughly three-quarters of Americans’ interactions with people from another political party happen at work. Other spheres of life are significantly more politically divided: Less than half of respondents said they encounter political differences among their friends. Only 39 percent said they see political diversity within their families, and vanishingly few people said they encounter ideological diversity at religious services or community meetings. Traditionally, researchers have seen these spaces as places where people can build strong relationships and practice the habits of democracy. The PRRI/Atlantic findings add to growing evidence that these institutions are becoming weaker—or, at the very least, more segregated by identity. “If you’re thinking from a participatory democracy model, you would hope to see these numbers much higher,” said Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI.
Even Americans who are exposed to people from a different political party might not want to get too close. Almost one in five of the survey respondents said their interactions with people of a different political party are negative. This may be a reflection of deepening partisanship in America: Party affiliation influences not just how people vote, but cultural decisions such as what to buy or watch on television, said Lilliana Mason, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland. “As these other social identities have moved into alignment with partisanship, we’re seeing more animosity across partisan lines—not necessarily because we’re disagreeing about things, but because we believe the [person from the] other party is an outsider, socially and culturally, from us,” she said. “It also becomes really easy to dehumanize people who we don’t have identities in common with.” In recent decades, social scientists have seen increased use of the language of dehumanization, Mason said: people calling their political opponents monsters, animals, or demons, for example.