Self-labeled intersectional feminist Lara Witt recently put together a list of dating questions to help like-minded allies separate the wheat from the chaff in the struggle: to quickly identify members of their tribe while out in the dating world. While her list mentions issues that transcend politics and touch on deeper philosophical and religious concerns, much of her interrogation rests on specific policy stances and partisan posturing. Indeed, at the beginning of her essay, she asserts, “The personal is political.”
That assertion says volumes about our world. It suggests that politics is stepping into our communal vacuum and seeking to fill the gap. Without strong geographic or religious ties, we are turning to political parties and ideologies for a sense of pride and place.
But the danger here is that political tribes will not challenge or nurture our souls in the way physical and religious communities do.
What sort of social ties do we turn to for belonging? What relationships help bind our worlds together?
Twitter profiles offer an interesting glimpse into the connections we often turn to for identity. Users often list their most pertinent relationships or their careers (“husband, father, pastor”). Some associate themselves with their state or favorite team (“Proud Ohioan. Go Bobcats!”). Often, users let us know what their political affiliations are: be they Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or somewhere in between. Some list their religion, while others quote their favorite philosophers or authors.
All these tiny snippets of information give us a fascinating glimpse into the identity users have crafted for themselves: how they see themselves, how they want to be known, and how they hope to attract friends or followers. They often suggest to us how we, in an increasingly fragmented and secular world, seek belonging and community.
A hundred years ago, however, such identity-seeking and expressions of individualism were less common. Our ancestors were more static, their pursuits more local. While some did travel in search of a new life or better prospects, most remained in place. They were known and identified by family, neighbors, and friends. Their personal and political personality unfurled amid a built-in community, one they didn’t have to seek out online.
America’s population (along with the rest of the world’s) was also much more religious a hundred years ago: many built their lives around the church and its communal ties. While at least some of this religious participation was nominal, even casual adherence gave church members a tribe or collective to bond with. It presented opportunities for camaraderie, philanthropic support, and love. It nourished present joys and future hopes.
But today we live in a different world. There are more “nones” (those with no religious or at least denominational affiliation) in America than ever before—and younger generations have demonstrated a marked reticence for most organized religion. Many congregants who commute long distances to a church or attend megachurches find themselves struggling to connect, unable to attain that same sense of neighborliness and membership their ancestors once tapped into.
Replacing the ties of faith and place is something of a struggle—a public dating game, if you will—in which we seek to match our displaced and atomized selves with some sort of tribe or community, and thereby create a specific identity.
Political groups offer us insulated bubbles of thought and opinion—ones that are all too often self-ingratiating and comforting. Christ encouraged his followers to “deny [themselves] and take up [their] cross daily,” but Facebook and Twitter allow us to block or tune out those whose opinions might make us uncomfortable or annoyed. Dating questions like Witt’s may help her find like-minded romantic partners, but they are unlikely to foster compassionate or thoughtful conversation with her ideological “enemies.” In this world, it’s easy to segregate ourselves on opposing political islands, staring across the watery chasm with disdain and anger at those we disagree with.
Politics is often personal, yes, but politics should not define us. It’s only one ingredient in the enormous swirling mass we call identity. The most important ingredients, one might argue, are (or at least should be) those that enable us to love and serve others—not the stuff that promotes friction and separation. Seeking to foster a sense of place, for instance, can encourage neighborliness and empathy. Building one’s identity around a religious creed can cultivate selflessness and service. These extrafamilial ties will most often force us into various political companies, but they encourage us to be Good Samaritans and kind neighbors all the same.
In today’s America, our political schism is growing ever wider, separating us into vivid shades of red and blue. Only those able to bridge the gap, to step into the realm of the purple, will be able to build community, love, and empathy in coming days.
Sadly, our political tribes are loath to accomplish this sort of work. All too often they encourage us not only to make political difference personal but also to make it unforgivable. Thus, we need local communities and individual groups to pop these self-contained bubbles of separation and disdain—to remind us of the communities and memberships beyond partisanship and political opinion. In order to prevent our Republican or Democratic inclinations from trumping empathy and neighborliness, we need to restore older bonds, and remind Americans that there are other—better—ties that bind.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.