Political Polarization and Marriage
Young Americans are increasingly ruling out those of the other party.
Lyman Stone and Brad Wilcox of the conservative Institute for Family Studies take to The Atlantic to argue that this trend is “bad news for marriage.”
Marriage rates in America are falling fast: Many men and women are marrying later, and more and more people. are never marrying at all. Marriage is in retreat for a host of reasons, but one overlooked cause is the rising difficulty many young people have finding a partner who meets all of their requirements—emotional, physical, financial, and political. That last requirement has only become more important over time, with fewer Americans willing to date or marry across the aisle.
Dating apps and websites report a growing share of users setting political criteria for matches. The Survey Center on American Life, a project of the American Enterprise Institute, recently found that about two-thirds of liberal and conservative singles would be more likely to “swipe left” and reject a potential match who did not share their politics.
Given that my preference is for marriages that are happy and stable rather than marriage for its own sake, this all strikes me as to the good. Mary Matalin and James Carville notwithstanding, it’s really hard to make a marriage work if the two partners have wildly disparate worldviews.
They make a stronger point here:
This bodes ill for the future of marriage—given that growing numbers of young men and women find themselves on different sides of America’s deepening political divide. (We base our following analysis on the fact that most young adults who marry will do so with a different-sex partner—according to Census Bureau data, heterosexual marriages accounted for about 98 percent of weddings of people under 35 in 2021.)
The nonpartisan General Social Survey, run out of NORC at the University of Chicago, has been collecting data on young people’s political attitudes since the early 1970s. We’ve found that focusing on singles ages 18 to 30 and pooling data across five-year intervals is a useful way to ensure a large enough sample to track accurately how attitudes in early adulthood have shifted over time. The figure below shows the share of young singles (18–30) in the survey who identified as distinctly liberal or conservative (excluding respondents in the middle who answered as “slightly liberal,” “slightly conservative,” or “moderate, middle of the road”).
The most striking aspect of these trends is that the past decade has seen the sexes polarizing along ideological and political lines, a pattern that coincides with the rise of social media and the post-Trump political landscape. Young single men have been moving to the right, even as their female peers have been moving even further left. About 10 percent of such men were conservative in the early 1980s, but that share has now risen to about 15 percent (while the proportion of single liberal young men has held steady at about 18 percent in recent years).
As for single young women, the share identifying as liberal surged from about 15 percent in the early 1980s to 32 percent in the 2020s. (Correspondingly, the share of conservative single women declined from 10 percent to about 7 percent over the same period.) Most of this change has happened since 2010. In short, the past decade has seen single young men shift slightly to the right and single young women move markedly left, which means that the ideological divide between the sexes is growing.
This is interesting indeed and often rendered invisible by cohort polling. While the younger generation are considerably more liberal than older cohorts, that’s almost entirely a function of younger women moving to the left.
Without a more detailed breakdown, I don’t know exactly what to make of that. My guess is that a lot of this is likely driven by abortion and LGBTQ issues, where women are naturally going to be more “liberal.”
Given that the trend starts in 2010, it’s not about Trumpism per se—although I’m sure that has accelerated it. But that roughly coincides with the rise of the Tea Party, which I see as the direct precursor to Trump. Both the Tea Party and MAGA are full of ressentiment over the declining power of white Christian men, complete with pseudo-macho cosplay with firearms. It’s not surprising that this is less appealing to young women than young men.
Does this make marriage—a valuable institution for raising children—less likely? It does. But misogynists make terrible husbands and fathers. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
This poses a major challenge for people looking to marry, given that many of today’s young adults show a growing preference for partnering with someone who shares their politics. Granted, partisanship as a determinant of the choices people make in love and marriage is not a wholly new phenomenon: Americans have been sorting partners by politics for decades. This is a wise strategy for most people—assuming that, for many, an ultimate goal of dating is to find a spouse—because research suggests that marriages across political or religious lines (when those things matter significantly to each partner) can be less happy, more conflicted, and more likely to end in divorce than marriages where spouses agree on religion and politics.
Indeed, the premise of matching services like eHarmony is to recommend potential partners who align on these metrics. It’s certainly possible to be happy with a spouse from a different religion—but probably only if religion isn’t particularly important to you. If one partner is adamant that the children be raised as Orthodox Jews and the other a devout Roman Catholic, it’s not likely to work out. Ditto a rabid Trumper and an AOC devotee.
However, plenty of evidence suggests that marriages between like-minded spouses are stronger; scholars call such relationships, in which the two partners share important characteristics, “homogamous.” Homogamy matters for marriage when it predicts how a person thinks about their life goals, their ways of resolving conflicts, and their values regarding work, family, faith, and fun. Clearly, for many people, religion is very bound up with such attitudes, but the benefits of homogamy certainly don’t end there. For example, it turns out that even highly narcissistic people are happiest when married to other narcissists, according to a 2020 study.
(I don’t understand why this is a “However” rather than an “Indeed.)
A lot of people might swipe left for narcissists, too, so where does politics fit in? Recent research suggests that politically homogamous couples really do enjoy greater relationship satisfaction and lower divorce rates. Wendy Wang, the director of research at the Institute for Family Studies, where we are both fellows, has found that fewer than half (47 percent) of politically mixed married couples report they are “completely satisfied with their family life,” compared with “61 percent of couples in which both spouses are Republicans and 55 percent where both are Democrats.” Besides being more likely to share a range of values, couples on the same political team are likely to find it easier to build friendships in common, especially given the polarized character of today’s society.
The values and attitudes encapsulated in religious and political ideologies also act as a reliable proxy for long-term life goals—especially regarding gender, work, and family—that have a big bearing on whether marriages succeed or fail. For men and women who have similar political views, forming a bond with a mate is simplified.
So, again, the authors seem to agree with me that the sorting they bemoan makes for healthier marriages.
But for those with very different political views, matching is a tougher challenge. Because fewer heterosexual men and women will be able to find a partner who shares their politics, more people may never marry at all.
Liberal women and conservative men who want to marry face a particular challenge: Not enough single partners of the correct political persuasion are available today. In broad terms, there are only 0.6 single liberal young men for each single liberal young woman; likewise, only 0.5 single conservative young women exist for every conservative young man. Statistically, in other words, about half of these ideologically minded young singles face the prospect of failing to find a partner who shares their politics.
That is indeed a math problem. And that’s without considering a related issue: younger heterosexual women are far more likely than their target pool to have graduated college. That certainly overlaps with ideology but, given that college-educated women tend to look for college-educated men as partners, the numbers don’t add up.
There are a few more paragraphs belaboring the point before concluding:
The sobering future for marriage and family life in America is that greater political polarization spells trouble for already anemic rates of dating, mating, and marrying. And not only in America—we are seeing this dynamic play out in other countries. Recent research in Singapore has found that divergent attitudes between men and women about politics, family, and gender roles are a crucial factor in low marriage rates. Similar effects can be seen in South Korea, where rates of marriage and fertility have hit world-historical lows.
The divide between the sexes in America is not as deep as it is in parts of East Asia, but the U.S. is in danger of heading in that direction. And if the sexes are making war over political issues, they’re less likely to make love.
It’s an interesting problem with no obvious short-term solution. Indeed, the “gender gap” has been a thing since at least the 1980 election.