America—arguably the world’s most diverse, innovative, and surprising nation—is becoming a lot more predictable. And boring.
According to the most recent Pew Research Poll on political polarization, Americans are becoming more consistently liberal or conservative in their opinions, and ideological thinking is much more aligned with political party membership than before. This means that the overlap between the two parties that existed two decades ago—when there were conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans—is gone. And so we have fewer people—both political apostates and regular, moderate folks—who can bridge the gap between the competing ideologues and partisans.
Worse yet, the hardening of ideological and partisan positions is reflected in the way we choose to live our lives. Conservatives and liberals don’t even agree on the size of the houses they want to live in, the amenities they want to live near, or the kind of neighbors they prefer. More than 75 percent of people who describe themselves as “consistently liberal” want to live in a neighborhood where houses are smaller and closer to one another and schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance—while 75 percent of “consistently conservative” people want the opposite (larger houses with more space and amenities within driving distance).
What do they agree on? That they don’t want to have much to do with people with whom they disagree. Which doesn’t take much effort when they live a different lifestyle in a different zip code.
Once upon a time, political beliefs were loosely linked to class and status. But they increasingly define our entire cultural identities, and vice versa. Now, as University of Maryland political scientist James G. Gimpel has argued, you can easily guess a person’s political persuasion if you know the snack foods he eats or the music she downloads. (Talk about profiling! But if there were ever a reason to swear off kale chips, perhaps this is it.) It’s depressing to think that millions and millions of unique individuals spread across millions of square miles and tracing their backgrounds from all corners of the globe can be so easily reduced to just two rather narrow camps.
The Pew survey reminded me of a rather dreary dinner party I attended a few months ago in notoriously progressive West Los Angeles. It was one of those gatherings where everyone was of a type and agreed on all things—from what issues to support to what cars to buy. I found myself wandering in thought when an astute local politician caught my eye and asked if I was sad because I was the only moderate amidst a gaggle of lefties. Caught off guard, I blurted out the truth. I’m not used to so much certainty around one table, I told her. It bored me.
Social psychologists have long known that in uncertain times people often seek certainty and belonging in ideological groups. A tumultuous economy, profound demographic shifts, and fast-changing technology can leave individuals unsure of their place in the world. So by adhering to all-encompassing, ideological worldviews, people can quickly differentiate between friends and foes in a threatening landscape.
But certainty, while comforting, is bound to have long-term costs, including mind-numbing predictability and the diminishment of the chances of actually learning anything new.
As social media becomes our primary means of receiving news and information, the Internet echo chamber becomes complete. Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm prioritizes the “news” shared by your friends based in part on your “affinity” with them. Search engines tailor their findings for the individual seeker; restaurant and music apps make recommendations based on what your friends like. All this, says MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman, means that we learn about the world through self-selected people who are just like us, which only reinforces our worldviews.
Zuckerman argues passionately against this state of affairs for two reasons. One, because he believes we can’t solve serious problems by just talking to people who are just like us. And two, because he thinks homophily—the fancy sociological term for birds of a feather flock together—is making us “stupid.”
Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli agrees. He not only thinks certainty is overrated, but that uncertainty is “the first source of all knowledge.” He insists that the term “scientifically proven” is an oxymoron, and tells his colleagues that a good scientist is never certain, and always ready to shift views the moment better evidence emerges.
Sure, doubt can be debilitating. But the finality of certainty is ultimately limiting and unsatisfying, particularly in a country where more than 300 types of breakfast cereal are sold. The smartphone has already destroyed the bar bet; we don’t have to let a combination of technology and fear of the unknown and unfamiliar kill off wonder and imagination entirely.
Certainty also seems to be a rather naïve strategy for negotiating an increasingly complicated and interconnected world, one that would seem to require more flexibility, not less. In his 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” that great Yankee individualist Ralph Waldo Emerson warned against such lemming-like conformism. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” he wrote, “adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Is that who we want to be?
Emerson encouraged us all to retain the right to change our minds. In this day and age, such advice isn’t likely to get you elected to higher office. But if you’re a person who can’t be reduced to a set of political beliefs, someone who relishes uncertainty and loves questions even more than answers—I’m hoping you’ll save a seat for me at the dinner party. You might even entertain me through dessert.
Originally published in Zocalo Public Square.