Feature:Opinion

Politics and dating

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas

The Financial Times recently ran a fascinating report about the inner-workings of the successful online dating website Match.com. Like many social networking websites, Match.com is powered by a sophisticated algorithm — or mathematical function — that uses a number of variables to bring people together in the virtual world. In this case, Match.com is bringing single people together for the sake of meeting online and then, if all goes well, dating in the real world.

The algorithm needs data to work. It gets that data from the way users behave on the site. For example, if a female user is browsing the profiles of older men, the algorithm will know that she is interested in older men, and it will filter her search results accordingly.

From data like these, Match.com was able to draw a conclusion about politics and dating. According to Match.com engineer Amarnath Thombre, “Conservatives are far more open to reaching out to someone [on the dating site] with a different point of view than a liberal is.” In other words, conservatives are far more tolerant of dating liberals than liberals are of spending time with conservatives.

Why would this be? First of all, when it comes to dating, we are dealing with a young demographic. Almost half of Match.com’s singles are between the ages of 18 and 35. Younger people tend to be more liberal, so there is likely to be a smaller pool of single conservatives on the website. If a conservative wants to maximize his chances of getting a date, he will need to reach out across the aisle, so the speak, and be open to dating liberals.

Could there, however, be a deeper philosophical reason behind the open-mindedness of conservatives when it comes to dating? There may be. Examining other differences between liberals and conservatives can help us answer this question. A good place to start is Arthur Brooks’ “Gross National Happiness,” a book that argues that conservatives are twice as happy as liberals. In a 2008 interview about the book, Brooks said, “What determines whether or not [people are] happy is their private lives. Politics thankfully is not that important to people.” Part of the reason liberals are less happy than conservatives is because their private lives are so defined by the public world of politics.

Consider how a liberal would react to a political loss versus how a conservative would react. Brooks, an economist and president of the American Enterprise Institute, notes of conservatives: “If you’re conservative and a liberal wins the White House it wouldn’t make you less happy.” Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center has found that “liberal Democrats are more likely than other voters to say they would have an intense emotional reaction if their candidate does not win.”

Liberals are also far more likely than conservatives to follow election results, donate to political causes and volunteer for political campaigns. According to the Pew Research Center, during the 2008 election cycle 34 percent of liberal Democrats donated to a campaign, while only 13 percent of Republicans did. Conservatives were donating their money, too — but to charities, many of them religious. As George Will wrote in 2008, “Although liberal families’ incomes average 6 percent higher than those of conservative families, conservative-headed households give, on average, 30 percent more to charity than the average liberal-headed household.”
The centrality of politics to the liberal identity could be a reflection of the absence of certain guideposts in their lives. Conservatives are twice as likely to be married as liberals are. They are also twice as likely to go to church each week. According to Gallup, 48 percent of “very religious” Americans identify as Republican, while only 38 percent identify as Democratic. At the same time, 29 percent of nonreligious Americans identify as Republican, while 54 percent identify as Democratic. Gallup has also found that people who are religious tend to be happier than people who are not, and that people who are married tend to be happier than those who are not, which is why conservatives are happier than liberals. They are “statistically more likely [than liberals] to be married, go to church, and be optimistic about their future — boosting their personal happiness.”

To explore the issue further — and on a more personal level — I asked a wide group of my own friends to tell me how their politics and love lives mesh. My sample included liberals and conservatives up and down the Eastern Seaboard, some of whom have even dabbled in online dating.

According to the informal and anecdotal set of responses I received, young conservatives put less emphasis on political identity than young liberals do. When I asked my friends if they would date someone across the political aisle, the typical conservative response was, “Politics has never been an enormous part of my life.” This response came from a female friend. Meanwhile, a conservative male friend made the same point: “The political beliefs of my partner are not important to me.”

Young and single lefties had a different story to tell. A female friend of mine who has worked on Capitol Hill for a very liberal senator told me that she takes her political identity very seriously. She explains, “Liberals internalize their political identity more than conservatives.” While conservatives can simply put politics aside at the end of the day, “Liberals see their political beliefs as a fundamental part of their identity that they can’t separate that from their social interactions.” Another Democratic friend explains further, “Liberals tie their politics more closely to their personal lives.” In other words, for liberals, there is less of a distinction between the private and the public sphere as there is for conservatives.

No wonder liberal secularists are far likelier to assign serious moral weight to their partners’ political beliefs than conservatives are. A liberal friend tells me, “I really do think that liberals, myself formerly included, think that a lot of conservatives are bad people that want to repress freedom of speech and women’s rights in the most extreme way … [so] liberals tend to think more than conservatives, ‘How could I ever relate to someone who thinks that?’”

For a conservative male friend, “There are so many other factors that are important in determining whether or not I would be interested in a relationship. Her personality, her spirituality, her family background, her hobbies and lifestyle. At the end of the day, who cares what you think about distant, abstract problems?”

For conservatives, life is not defined by politics. So why would a relationship be?

Emily Esfahani Smith, an assistant editor at The New Criterion, is managing editor of Defining Ideas, a Hoover Institution journal (definingideas.org).