Neha, 25, a pseudonymous Indian immigrant in Seattle, dated a guy for four years who was “the scion of Merrill Lynch blood money. … He voted for Romney, loves guns and doesn’t believe in any form of government assistance, so pretty much a hardcore Republican,” she explains. Neha has totally divergent political views. “I’m pretty much solidly leftist in every way: pro-choice, pro-Palestine, I support government health care and wealth taxes — the works.”
The unlikely union formed when they met at an Ivy League college and discovered “strong physical and intellectual chemistry.” Plus, Neha wasn’t initially aware that their views were so different. “To be honest, the only reason I was a viable option despite my race is because my parents are wealthy — not blood-money rich, but they’re both individually over Obama’s $250k cutoff — and I’m thin and conventionally pretty,” she continues. “Otherwise, no matter how smart and interesting I was, I’d have never crossed his radar.”
The media likes to treat relationships like Neha’s as admirable curiosities, with regular articles hailing “interpolitical relationships” as the “Romeo and Juliet story of our times.” They feature in sympathetic magazine profiles and receive approving commentary from self-styled relationship experts who describe these dynamics as “passionate” and plucky; the willingness to engage in them is framed as righteous and open-minded.
In reality, these relationships are difficult, tense and often doomed to fail. Rather than charming star-crossed entanglements, they’re often characterized by near-constant arguing, or by one or both partners digging their heads in the sand. “It’s too frustrating to constantly be trying to change someone’s mind about whether or not the world should be a place where some people get to dominate everyone else or the environment,” says Sammy, a 28-year-old student who’s had two boyfriends much further to the right than her. “The arguments are repetitive, and it gets too tiring. It’s difficult to feel close to someone who you can’t fundamentally trust has your best interests as a woman at heart.”
George, a 29-year-old Bernie Sanders voter who found out after a few months that his girlfriend voted for Trump, tells me they “basically can’t talk politics together” and that he worries they’ll “never see eye-to-eye,” so he “avoids thinking about it altogether.”
Many report that they’d never go for such a big political divide again, including Neha, who ended things with her partner once it became clear to her that he “hates women, even if he happened to love” her, and “is low-key racist,” with Neha serving as a token “exception.” It seems reasonable to want to avoid these woes by picking more like-minded partners, but a refusal to date political opposites is routinely cast as stubborn and uncompromising, a kind of romantic echo chamber that critics say causes society to be more polarized and perhaps even weakens human genes. The reluctance of young people to date across political lines causes particular hand-wringing.
Not that those young people care. “I don’t date anyone who isn’t a dirty commie because politics don’t end at elections and debates, they encompass everything in society including human rights and basic moral values,” says Lace, a 24-year-old from New York, whose view was representative of almost all my sources. “Voting conservative ends with the diabetic patient dying from rationing insulin because government funding for Medicaid was cut again by the conservative majority.” She says she could never date someone “who sees disabled people as unworthy of living or immigrants as less human, and supporting certain political positions means endorsing these fucked-up ways of thinking.”
“I’m a queer, disabled woman of color, so dating someone right wing or even centrist might mean dating someone who genuinely didn’t believe in my right to personhood,” Micha, a 25-year-old Londoner, says. Eliza, an artist in her 30s from Seattle, concurs: “Literally 99 percent of my friends are out trans people, and I’m obligated to protect them from people who wish them ill. That extends to not bringing people into my friends’ lives and social circles who represent an immediate threat to them.”
Many also say they don’t want to endlessly debate someone whose political views they find boring and regressive. “I want a partner who makes me feel like I’m learning, growing, discovering and changing,” says Micha, “someone who helps me go further and actually develops my politics.” Darryl, a 38-year-old receptionist in New York, agrees: “I really just can’t compromise on whether black people deserve to be free from violence and whether LGBTQ people deserve rights.”
Why, then, is there so much praise for couples on the political divide? Reading through the glowing profiles, I notice almost all of them are wealthy, straight, cisgender and white, and that their politics aren’t necessarily totally disparate: Moderate Democrats dating establishment Republicans with a basic consensus on neoliberal economics and personal insulation from most of the effects of conservative policies. “When we discussed the potential of losing access to abortions under Trump, [my husband’s] response was that it didn’t directly affect us, so why should we worry?” one woman told the New York Times. Meanwhile, another told PopSugar, “We can avoid talking about some things, like how we disagree sometimes about LGBTQ+ and trans issues, or about how people are overreacting to things Trump does, because we’re not directly affected by those things ourselves.”
In other words, the “couple on the political divide” most cherished by the media is comprised of two wealthy, non-marginalized people who treat politics like an allegiance to a certain sports team or an avenue for lively debate across the kitchen counter, rather than a matter of life or death. It’s the illusion of a drastic worldview difference, when in fact “everyone is white and all have the same class interests,” as one of my sources puts it. “The people who say ‘it’s just politics’ are the people for whom bigotry poses no real risk to their jobs, relationships and lives,” says Jon, a 37-year-old bisexual man in New York, “and so they can shrug off these differences as no big deal.”
This attitude to politics is unfathomable to my sources, most of whom are some combination of female, queer, trans, poor, disabled and undocumented, or who care deeply about people who are. They rule out as potential partners not just hardline conservatives, but neoliberals and centrists who are more concerned with “bipartisan compromise” and “civility” than safeguarding their fundamental rights. “To me, being a centrist, moderate or apolitical in this political climate is essentially aligning with whiteness,” says Ashish, a 37-year-old software developer and immigrant in California.
The risk of “polarization” this attitude supposedly causes is a red herring, disingenuously blaming the decline of democracy on leftist women who won’t fuck conservatives instead of on, say, gerrymandering, voter suppression, men who bully their wives and girlfriends into voting conservative and the influence of corporate lobbying. Rather than focus on these issues, critics blame individuals — and implicitly, those on the left — for wanting partners who share their values, and who truly value their wellbeing and lives. “The whole ‘you’re just narrow-minded’ thing gives me the shits, because it’s like, ‘No, I just don’t want to have sex with someone who thinks reverse racism is real,’” says Harriet, a 29-year-old writer in Australia who refuses to date anyone with right-wing politics.
“It’s one thing to argue policy specifics, but there’s no reckoning with ‘brown people are leeches on society’ and ‘it’s fine and good that we jail one in every 10 people,’” adds Julia, 32, from Washington, D.C. “It feels like they shouldn’t be allowed to have orgasms on principle.”