15 March 2019

America’s least tolerant county and the decline of political civility

By Jonathan Miltimore

The Atlantic recently asked PredictWise, an analytics firm, to rank US counties based on partisan prejudice (“affective polarization”). The results are now in, and they are fascinating. The most intolerant country was not Rabun County in northeastern Georgia, where the film Deliverance was shot. Nor was it in Albany County, Wyoming, where Matthew Shepard was killed. And it was not in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi, where Emmett Till was lynched more than a half-century ago.

The most politically intolerant county in the United States, The Atlantic says, appears to be Suffolk County, Massachusetts.

Suffolk County, part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, represents the heart of the Boston-Cambridge-Newton part of New England. Politically, Suffolk County is about as progressive as America gets.

As of 2016, it had a (mostly white) population of 784,230, all of whom cram into 58 square miles of land surface area. The median family income is about $58,000. It is highly educated, with 44 percent of residents holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, and it is barely a stone’s throw from two of America’s most esteemed universities—Harvard and MIT.

The county’s three congressional districts—the 5th, 7th, and 8th—are represented by progressive Democrats: Rep. Katherine Clark, Rep. Ayanna Soyini Pressley, and Rep. Stephen Lynch. Just 5 percent of county residents identify as Republican. No GOP presidential candidate has claimed Suffolk County since Calvin Coolidge—in 1924.

Perhaps more shocking is the least politically prejudiced place in America. That would be Watertown, New York. Watertown has a population of about 27,000. The median household income is $36,115. Like Suffolk County, Watertown is mostly white. It also happens to be young, suburban/rural, and not over-educated highly educated. And its politics?

“This most tolerant town is in a county that voted for Trump by a 20-point margin,” Andrew Sullivan observed in New York magazine. “Let’s absorb that fact for a while, shall we?”

Most people, The Atlantic notes, discriminate against the political opposition explicitly and implicitly. We do this in whom we hire, date, and marry. We make snap judgements about people’s patriotism, compassion, and intelligence.

All humans do this, but PredictWise’s findings show some Americans are more inclined toward this than others.

The makeup of Suffolk County fits closely with what researchers identified as America’s most politically intolerant bunch: “woke white liberals” (to borrow a phrase from Sullivan).

“In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves,” The Atlantic reported.

A 2017 poll from Harvard found that millennials are less likely to interact with people who don’t share their values.

Members of this group in particular “don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents.”

The findings, the authors say, dovetail with research from Diana Mutz, a University of Pennsylvania political science professor who has found “that white, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity.”

Older progressives are not the only people prone to tribalism or political isolation, of course. In fact, PredictWise found that overall, Republicans appear to dislike Democrats more than Democrats dislike Republicans. And other research has found that younger adults are even more politically isolated than older adults.

A 2017 poll from Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, for example, found that millennials have thicker “bubbles” than other age demographics, meaning they are less likely to interact with people who don’t share their values.

If any of this talk of bubbles and social isolation sounds familiar, it might be because Charles Murray made similar observations in his 2012 book Coming Apart.

One of the book’s many themes is class bifurcation, specifically the idea that a new “elite” is forming that is out of touch with what Murray calls “white mainstream America.” (You can take Murray’s quiz to see how thick your own bubble is.)

But is having a “thicker bubble” really a problem? Bringing differing opinions into conflict is essential to democratic health and ultimately serves as a check on majoritarianism.

Conservatives might contend that they’re happy to not associate with squishy progressives from Suffolk County preaching social justice, just as many progressives in Suffolk County might say they’re happy to not associate with anyone who wears a MAGA hat, shoots animals, or listens to Rush Limbaugh.

People are entitled to associate with whom they choose, of course; but there is a price to this attitude. As Alexander Hamilton once observed, bringing differing opinions into conflict is essential to democratic health and ultimately serves as a check on majoritarianism.

“The differences of opinion, and the jarrings of parties in [the legislative] department of the government . . . often promote deliberation and circumspection,” said Hamilton, “and serve to check the excesses of the majority.”

Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein has also warned of the rise of what he calls “group polarization.” The basic idea is that when humans associate only with people who think as they do, they become A-holes more certain and more radical.

Here is what Sunstein wrote in his 1999 paper “The Law of Group Polarisation”:

In a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own predeliberation judgements. For example, people who are opposed to the minimum wage are likely, after talking to each other, to be still more opposed; people who tend to support gun control are likely, after discussion, to support gun control with considerable enthusiasm; people who believe that global warming is a serious problem are likely, after discussion, to insist on severe measures to prevent global warming.

This general phenomenon—group polarisation—has many implications for economic, political, and legal institutions. It helps to explain extremism, “radicalization,” cultural shifts, and the behaviour of political parties and religious organizations; it is closely connected to current concerns about the consequences of the Internet; it also helps account for feuds, ethnic antagonism, and tribalism.

The rise of group polarization, I suspect, is what is driving the decline in basic civility.

The more we associate only with our group, the more we see people not part of that group as “others”; the more we see people as others, the deeper we fall into the trap of collectivist thinking.

The great challenge, now as always, is to reject group identity and recognize people as individuals.

“Only individuals can learn. Only individuals can think creatively,” wrote Leonard Read in 1954. “Only individuals can cooperate. Only individuals can combat statism.”

Read’s wisdom doesn’t apply to just the people in Suffolk County. It’s a lesson we’d all do well to remember.

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

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Jonathan Miltimore is the Managing Editor of FEE.org. His writing has appeared in TIME magazine, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Forbes, Fox News, and the Washington Times.