ROMANCE SEPTEMBER 3, 2013
Last week, the Pacific Standard made the intriguing claim that online dating is worsening America's political polarization. Scanning the headline, it seemed possible. Match.com, OKCupid, and the like give all their lonely hearts access to a lot of demographic data—age, race, income, hometown—that can serve as a surrogate for party affiliation, and some users even slap their political views up on their profiles. As the piece's author, Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz, writes, this "allows people to be pickier about who qualifies as 'acceptable' before they ever have the chance to meet," lessening the chances that you'll meet that guy who loves to read and shares your sense of humor, even if he voted for Romney.
But the argument doesn't withstand much scrutiny. Sure, it starts from a reasonable premise: "The effect of mixed politics partnering is important" because "when people are exposed to divergent political viewpoints from people they spend time with, they tend to be far more tolerant of opposing views"; and this is amplified over generations because kids grow up to think—and vote—like their parents, and tolerance and extremism are heritable, too. But Pearson-Merkowitz never makes the leap to proving that online dating is an impediment to these cross-clan pairings.
The biggest problem is that the study she sites, "The Dating Preferences of Liberals and Conservatives," from the latest issue of the journal Political Behavior, doesn't compare couples that met online to couples that met in more traditional ways. Its authors only surveyed the former, though they did conclude, "both liberals and conservatives seek to date individuals who are like themselves…which in turn could be fueling the widening ideological gap in the United States." What's more, it turns out that finding your political counterparts on a dating site is usually less straightforward than the Standard suggests. A 2011 study found, "only 14 percent of online daters even included 'political interests' in their profile—less than the 17 percent of online daters who admit to being heavy set, stocky or carrying a few extra pounds." And "of those who listed politics as an interest, the majority— 57 percent—reported that their politics were 'middle of the road.'"
If you read Pearson-Merkowitz's article closely, it turns out she's complaining about the rising "ability to filter relationships based on factors that correlate highly with political preferences" (emphasis mine), and it's probably true that this happens, consciously or not, and even if most would-be Romeos decline to label themselves "Republican" or "Democrat." But how significant is it that online daters are using broad socioeconomic "factors" to screen potential mates, when our daily lives—and the traditional "friend of a friend" route to finding a partner—keep us at least as insulated? A lot of it is just plain geography: If you live in a densely populated city, particularly in the northeast, you have to search relatively hard to find a Republican to date; if you live somewhere rural or in the south, the opposite is true. In some cases, online dating actually broadens horizons, since it carries people outside their own circles of acquaintance.
The biggest issue with the Standard's article is that it implies it is shallow, even irresponsible, to use party affiliation as a filter for possible romantic partners. "The next time you see a bumper sticker that says, 'He’s not my President,' you may want to ask the person if they met their spouse online," Pearson-Merkowitz warns. I wouldn't reject someone out of hand for being a Republican, but I have no interest in making polite conversation over flat beers with a guy who doesn't believe gay marriage should be legal, or who thinks abortion is tantamount to murder. If I'm contributing to the polarization of American politics by declining to raise kids with such a person, too bad. As long as party registration is a nearly perfect proxy for fundamental social views—and as long as OKCupid doesn't have individual boxes for "universal health care," "voting rights," "gun control," and the like—some political discrimination strikes me, not as the cause of the problem, but as a very reasonable response to it.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.