Antony and Cleopatra. Hitler and Stalin. James Carville and Mary Matalin. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver.
OK, maybe they’re not the best examples. Maybe that’s just it – there aren’t too many famous couples out there that prove political opposites attract. Relationships are difficult enough, particularly those in a public spotlight, without ideological differences adding one more potential source of friction.
I’m pretty sure that inter-political couples are more common in real life, away from the camera flashes and teleprompters; I can think of a several couples amongst friends where love conquers politics on a daily basis. So it’s possible, but I think it’s relatively rare. Certainly rarer the stronger the partners’ beliefs and more extensive their political involvement. It’s one thing to embrace differences over an occasional dinnertime debate; it’s another to live with them 24/7 when politics is a profession or at least a passion for one or both parties.
I’m fascinated by the idea of inter-political dating because I’m fascinated by people and what makes them tick. I’m also fascinated by politics and I’m fascinated by dating. I practice and I preach.
Most people in our society are not at all or only vaguely interested in or bothered by politics. For the silent and relatively disengaged majority out there inter-political dating is not an issue. For those of mild to obsessive interest or involvement level, like tends to attract like. This is not just because people are drawn to those they deem most compatible, who share their ideas, ideals and the outlook on life, but also because people with similar interests tend to hang out together. Of the hundreds of couples I know where at least one party is politically inclined, an overwhelming majority have met through work in politics or involvement in politics. Assertive mating is not just a matter of socio-economic or educational but also ideological selection.
Here are a few lessons I’ve learned over the years as a right-wing political tragic from meeting, befriending and dating women from “the other side”. Give it whatever weight you want; I make no claims on being particularly representative or and my conclusions are not scientifically validated. I am grossly generalising; if it makes you feel better you can silently add “In some/many/most/majority of cases” before any of my declaratory propositions. And yes, there are great many exceptions, many of whom I’m fortunate to count as friends.
It’s a lot more of an issue for them than it is for us – the lefties find the concept of being romantically involved with the righties more challenging than the righties feel about the lefties. There is always an element of “sleeping with the enemy” in every inter-political liaison, but the extent to which “the enemy” is merely a humorous expression or a normative judgment varies widely across the political spectrum.
Over the years I have come across dozens and dozens online dating profiles stating quite clearly that men of right-of-centre beliefs and voting record need not bother to apply (I’m yet to find a similar sentiment expressed by a right-wing woman, but that’s something for another time). Most of those not as absolute in ruling out inter-ideological interactions are nevertheless sceptical and cautious about the actual prospects. Why is that? I can’t help but to gravitate to the old piece of political wisdom to the effect that “the right thinks the left is wrong, the left thinks the right is evil”. It’s easier to interact with someone who you think might be well meaning but misguided than someone whose philosophy is not just wrong but immoral and beyond the pale.
The left likes to think of themselves as tolerant, particularly in juxtaposition to the intolerant (sexist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and so on) right. In practice, however, the left’s tolerance in most cases means embracing and celebrating similar views only. Other perspectives are deemed not merely incorrect but offensive – and as such don’t have to be tolerated. Which is why when I come across dating profiles that state “don’t contact me if you’re a racist or homophobic” I know from experience that in many instances this is merely a shorthand for excluding those with different views on multiculturalism or same-sex marriage.
The lefties tend to judge people according to their intentions, the righties according to their actions and their consequences. This too makes it easier to write someone off straight away, without bothering to get to know them. After all, you only need to know what they think to make a snap judgment, not who they are and what they do, which not only takes more time to assess but can lead to a different conclusion.
There is more to life than politics – avoidance is not always the best approach when facing life’s challenges, but it has its place as a survival tactic. You know you have radically different political views. You know that it’s extremely unlikely your views are going to change, certainly in the short term. You can reasonably safely assume the same about your partner or potential partner. In such a context, dwelling on and arguing about politics is quite pointless and destructive – it can only annoy, aggravate, and sow doubts about broader compatibility. So don’t. As important as politics is in life, there are hundreds of other topics to talk about. Most of them also happen to be nicer, funnier and more interesting.
Coincidentally, that’s Mary Matalin‘s recipe for inter-political relationship success: “I know it’s hard to believe, but we just don’t talk politics at home.” Others, however, argue that conflict is part of every relationship, and can even be a positive if you handle it well. Take your pick.
Seek what unifies you, not what divides you – even if you are on the opposite sides of political barricades, the chances are that there will be some issues, policies and positions you nevertheless share. It could be anything: support – or opposition to – same-sex marriage (which respectively can unite a libertarian and a progressive, and a conservative and a Catholic trade unionist), freedom of speech, strong foreign policy, etc. It’s basic psychology; we are social animals wired to look for commonalities with others and the more we find those the better rapport we can establish. It’s the same in inter-political dating.
A few years back I went out with a university lecturer who happened to be a classical anarchist of the Emma Goldman persuasion. She hated the Liberal National Party with a passion and (initially) considered me a fascist and the devil incarnate. On the other hand, she reserved equal venom for socialists – so straight away we had something we could both hate. It didn’t work out in the end, but not because of political differences.
The perils of friends – two people who passionately hold different political beliefs makes for a difficult enough arrangement to make work. At least though in a relationship there are other things which can compensate for and overshadow the ideological incompatibility. It gets tricky though once you think about introducing your new significant (or maybe not quite significant yet) other to your friends, who, the chances are, share your political commitments. Will they behave? Will they be nice to your partner? Or will they get into political arguments, unencumbered as they are by any countervailing attraction?
There are no easy answers here. You just have to trust that your partner will extend the courtesies to your friends that he or she extends to you – and vice versa.
There are more important things to relationships than politics – like compatible personalities, shared outlook on life and agreement as to the future direction, lifestyle choices, etc.
Whether politics truly matters depends on what implications you draw from person’s beliefs and commitments. Your relationship will work just fine (at least in this regard) if you agree that good and sane people faced with the same set of facts and circumstances can come to completely different conclusions. You will have a problem though if you treat political opinions as proxies for moral fitness. There is nothing wrong with – we all do to some extent, and to some extent it’s healthy; I wouldn’t date a (genuine as opposed to rhetorical) fascist, communist or Islamist (not that Islamists date). But be careful where you draw a line between what’s acceptable and what’s beyond the pale.