Judging from last month’s spate of articles about how to talk politics with relatives at Thanksgiving, few Americans know how to carry on a civil conversation with those whose views are different from their own. One reason for that may be our increasing propensity for living near and spending time with only people similar to ourselves. Bill Bishop presented evidence about that tendency in his 2008 book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. As The Economist summarized the underlying dynamic:
Americans move house often, usually for practical reasons. Before choosing a new neighbourhood, they drive around it. They notice whether it has gun shops, evangelical churches and “W” bumper stickers, or yoga classes and organic fruit shops. Perhaps unconsciously, they are drawn to places where they expect to fit in…
Because Americans are so mobile, even a mild preference for living with like-minded neighbours leads over time to severe segregation… Over time, this means Americans are ever less exposed to contrary views. In a book called “Hearing the Other Side,” Diana Mutz of the University of Pennsylvania crunched survey data from 12 countries and found that Americans were the least likely of all to talk about politics with those who disagreed with them.
Those facts increase people’s tendency to harbor more extreme views, which contributes to political deadlocks of the sort that have characterized Congress over the past few years.
How is this relevant to talking with your relatives about politics? It’s simple: you don’t choose your family. You choose your spouse and friends, and (if you’re lucky) even your neighbors and coworkers, so you probably have a lot in common with them. But you didn’t choose your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. They may be the only people close to you whose views are radically different from your own—which means that if you want to try talking about politics with your opponents, your relatives may be the only available interlocutors.
For G.K. Chesterton, the un-chosen-ness and disharmony of the family were strengths, not weaknesses.
The modern writers who have suggested, in a more or less open manner, that the family is a bad institution, have generally confined themselves to suggesting, with much sharpness, bitterness, or pathos, that perhaps the family is not always very congenial. Of course the family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. It is wholesome precisely because it contains so many divergencies and varieties…
Those who wish, rightly or wrongly, to step out of all this, do definitely wish to step into a narrower world. They are dismayed and terrified by the largeness and variety of the family… I do not say, for a moment, that the flight to this narrower life may not be the right thing for the individual, any more than I say the same thing about flight into a monastery. But I do say that anything is bad and artificial which tends to make these people succumb to the strange delusion that they are stepping into a world which is actually larger and more varied than their own.
Family life is not always peaceful, but in a world of instant gratification and echo chambers, it’s a healthy check on our self-centeredness, our egos, and our confidence in our own ideas.