Despite the media’s concerns about race relations, interracial marriages have been steadily rising for some time now. According to a Pew Report, “in 2013, a record-high 12% of newlyweds married someone of a different race…Looking beyond newlyweds, 6.3% of all marriages were between spouses of different races in 2013, up from less than 1% in 1970.” The notion that our society has grown more assimilated and more tolerant in the past half century is a given. Interfaith marriages are also on the rise. In 2015, Pew reported that “almost four-in-ten Americans (39%) who have married since 2010 have a spouse who is in a different religious group. By contrast, only 19% of those who wed before 1960 report being in a religious intermarriage.”
There are plenty of explanations for both of these trends—people from different races and religions are encountering each other more often. The legal barriers to mixing are gone. And many of the cultural ones are too. There is plenty of self-segregation that still occurs. But if you understand, as people who study this issue do, that you’re likely to marry the people you work with, the people you go to school with, and the people you “play” with, then it was inevitable that folks would be marrying out more often.
The fact that race and religion are generally less important to people—less central to their identity—than they were in the 1970s is both a cause and an effect of this change in marital patterns. What then, are we to make of some new data on marriage between people of different political parties? Eitan Hersh, a professor of political science at Yale University and Yair Ghitza, chief scientist at Catalist, a prominent political data firm, teamed up to look at how many Americans were marrying across political lines. First, they found that “30 percent of married households contain a mismatched partisan pair. A third of those are Democrats married to Republicans. The others are partisans married to independents.”
I’m a little skeptical of counting partisans married to independents as a mixed political marriage. As pollsters have known for years, people who identify as independents rarely are. Writing at the Monkey Cage blog a few years ago, John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University, noted that, “Most independents are closet partisans…. When asked a follow-up question, the vast majority of independents state that they lean toward a political party.” He also pointed out that contrary to popular belief, “The number of pure independents is actually quite small—perhaps 10% or so of the population. And this number has been decreasing, not increasing, since the mid-1970s.”
Of course, people who say they are independents married to Republicans or Democrats might be saying they are independents in order to keep peace in the house. The you-know-what might really hit the fan if they said they belonged to another party. But more likely these are just marriages between people who are more or less partisan to the same side.
Viewing the world through a purely or mostly political lens is shallow and constraining.
So, when Hersh and Ghitza say that “there is a much higher rate of mixed-partisan couples among younger pairs than older pairs,” but they include independents, it really doesn’t mean very much for taking our political temperature. What does matter is this finding: “while the proportion of Democratic-independent and Republican-independent pairs shrinks from the youngest couples to the oldest couples, the proportion of Democratic-Republican pairs actually doubles.” In other words, older couples are much more likely to be in mixed political party marriages than younger ones. It could be that when two people who are older get married, politics is less of a deciding factor in determining their compatibility. Or it could be that 30 or 40 years ago when older people got married, political differences did not matter to them as much as they matter to young people today.
If true, this would be a shame. It’s not that I think politics is unimportant. Rather the idea that Democrat vs. Republican should be so central to our lives that we would dismiss potential marriage partners is, on the whole, not good for us. Unfortunately, politics has probably taken the place of religion as a way of expressing our most basic values. What matters now is not whether you are a Catholic or Jew or Muslim or Atheist. What matters more is your view on gun control or abortion or taxes. But viewing the world through a purely or mostly political lens is shallow and constraining. It boils down people to Fox vs. MSNBC. Faith, by contrast, is a way of life, a conception of human nature and a view of the eternal. Something Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly cannot encompass.