There’s a street in my small Virginia town where two houses are at war with one another. One has Hillary Clinton signs dotting the front yard; the other promotes its support for Donald Trump. When the Hillary house added more signs, so did the Donald one. When the Hillary house upgraded to bigger placards, the Donald house did too.
That’s the real problem with this nasty election cycle. Even after the hellfires of political fury fade and your Facebook feed goes back to being mostly cat videos, you can never un-see those yard signs, or forget the ugly insults slung by your neighborhood grocer. You know that you live among people who were rooting for candidates you despise with a passion. How do you move on from that? Is it even possible?
These are the kinds of concerns that have prompted Americans to sort themselves into a polarized geopolitical landscape. Half of confirmed conservatives, and 35% of solid liberals, believe it’s important to live in a city where the majority of residents share their political views, according to a 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center.
The geographic sorting isn’t limited to the coasts versus the Midwest—it can happen at a much closer range as well. An hour’s drive across the prairie in Wisconsin are two counties that are both white, relatively urban, and fairly well off, yet they might as well occupy entirely different partisan galaxies. In Dane County, home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 72% of the 2012 presidential vote went to Barack Obama. In Waukesha County, in the suburbs around Milwaukee, 67% voted for Mitt Romney.
This level of political homogeneity tends to keep the peace. But residents who don’t identify with their town’s prevailing political ethos are often unhappy. According to German researchers Torben Lütjen and Robert Matschoß, in the blue Dane County, 69% percent of Republicans admitted they were dissatisfied with where they lived, twice the number of Democrats who said the same thing. In red Waukesha County, nearly 50% of Democrats reported dissatisfaction, but just 29% of Republicans.
Political outsiders tend to be unhappy in their towns not simply because they disagree with the majority about issues like health care and immigration policy, but because Democrats and Republicans are divided about what constitutes the ideal community. More Democrats, for instance, prefer walkable, quasi-urban neighborhoods, while Republicans gravitate toward rural or suburban areas and don’t mind driving. Democrats prize access to locally produced organic foods; Republicans, access to local religious services.
That’s why, when the website Livability.com recently produced its lists of Best Cities for Liberals and Conservatives, it used TV networks, cars, restaurants, retailers and magazines as the litmus test of partisan tastes. Love Cracker Barrel and Hobby Lobby? You’re probably Republican. Move to Bullhead City, Arizona. Prefer California Pizza Kitchen and Victoria’s Secret? The liberal paradise of St. Louis, Missouri calls your name.
But some of us don’t want to give in to the psychic undertow of the Big Sort. By avoiding or despising those who disagree with you, you stay closed to anyone’s ideas but your own. That’s the kind of my-way-or-the-highway thinking that’s rendered our national government ever-more strained, partisan, and unable to accomplish anything. Why not see neighbors from the opposite political camp as emblems of a diversity of thought?
If, like me, you’re looking to move past knee-jerk loathing of anyone with the wrong yard signs, here are a few things you can do.
Even what we read tends to break down along party lines. (You’re four times as likely to be a Democrat if you’ve read A Visit from the Goon Squad.) But Andrew Piper, an associate professor and William Dawson Scholar of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at McGill University, and Richard Jean So, assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, have identified more than 400 “bridge books”—novels and nonfiction that appeal to readers on both sides of the Trump/Clinton chasm.
Books that made the bipartisan top 10 range from classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to contemporary reads like A Game of Thrones and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When Republicans and Democrats talked about bridge books, the researchers found that their language became more positive and tolerant and less heated and tribal.
“Good literature,” explains Piper, “helps us think about big ideas, and those ideas can actually draw us together and find something more essential about ourselves.” Starting a bridge book club, or asking your neighbors what they’ve read lately, can lead to thoughtful discussions of differences and create a sense of community.
People build trust when they work together to pursue a common purpose, such as getting a new street light installed, cleaning up a park or painting over graffiti. That’s called “collective efficacy,” and according to Marc Dunkelman, author of The Vanishing Neighbor, it’s one of the most important signs of a healthy neighborhood. Dunkelman himself didn’t truly connect with his new neighbors after he moved to Providence, Rhode Island, until he organized them to lobby the city council to repave their street. Now, he says, “I’ve become the unofficial mayor of the street.”
Only 28% of Americans trust the federal government, but almost two-thirds of us believe our local government will the do the right thing. Why? Perhaps because 23 of the 30 largest cities in the US have actually set aside blue-and-red politics to hold nonpartisan municipal elections.
It’s all right for neighbors to disagree with each other: after all, dissent is the heart of democracy. The trick is figuring out how to disagree without losing it.
“Anyone can come up with a snap retort, make judgments, get angry, and be put off by other people,” says Cassandra Dahnke, co-founder of The Institute for Civility in Government, which offers civility training to groups nationwide. It’s much harder—but ultimately more valuable—to consciously choose a higher path.
Dahnke says there are two keys to civil discourse: listening to another person’s story without interrupting, and understanding that just as your own personal experiences have informed your opinion, so have your neighbor’s. “Differences are a reality,” says Dahnke, “and you have to look at that as the strength of who we are as a country, that we agree to disagree.”
One 2016 study found that a simple 10-minute, face-to-face conversation can increase empathy for people we’re prejudiced against and counter stereotypes. So sidle up for a chat—just don’t mention the yard signs.