Feb 28, 2023

Breaking the Bubble


Audrey Kirby

Resisting echo chambers and political extremism

Image By:
Madeline Mullenbach

My husband and I live in Lexington, Kentucky, a Democrat-voting university town at the center of a red state—59.2% voting Democrat here in the last election, versus 36.1% in the rest of the state (Sperling's BestPlaces, n.d.). We know that when we go out, when we meet new people, or when we mingle with new crowds, we will inevitably come across others who have different viewpoints.

In fact, my husband and I disagree on many political issues. Our votes have canceled out in past elections, and we often react differently to current events.

To me, it’s an oddly beautiful thing—not entertaining extremism, but resisting it by seeking humanity in the in-between.

Humans are innately tribal; we long for companionship and, consequently, are drawn to those who share similar interests. In the realm of politics, that search for compatibility is no different, but it can be misguided. Most of us have a real-world familiarity with how social media algorithms have devolved our feeds into political echo chambers, as we tend to latch on to those who substantiate our views rather than those who challenge them.

Disagreement is life’s way of revealing its nuance.

After the natural isolation of a global pandemic, we crave these solid relationships more than ever. However, we seem to be pulling away from others when we need them most due to the discomfort, genuine hurt, or—frankly—the inconvenience of political disagreement. 

A 2016 study conducted by Yale professor Gregory A. Huber and Stanford professor Neil Malhotra provided strong evidence that humans search for relationship partners who have similar political views—and that sorting starts early. A recent NBC News and Generation Lab poll backs up that finding, with 63% of surveyed second-year college students noting that they probably or definitely couldn’t see themselves marrying someone who supported the opposing candidate in the 2020 election (Murray, 2022). 

An article by Whaley (2018) says many online dating profile users began putting their political views in their online dating profiles after the 2016 election, in addition to dating apps adding a variety of voting-oriented profile features. In the article, an OkCupid user noted “that he’s also noticed more people proclaiming their allegiance for or against Trump in their dating profiles since Trump was elected.”  More recently, The Right Stuff is allowing users to skip that step altogether, branding itself as a dating app “created for conservatives.”

This political sorting does not just happen with dating; it’s with potential friendships, too. The same NBC News/Generation Lab poll revealed nearly half of college students would either probably not or definitely not be roommates with someone who voted differently than they did in the 2020 election (Murray, 2022). 

It's an understandable instinct to seek out those who hold similar interests, especially when voting records can reflect deeply held values. But these numbers—and the degree of polarization they suggest—alarm me, particularly because my marriage has been a first-hand account of how a difference in perspective can be a strength rather than a detriment.

Political discussions with my husband are not echo chambers; they are intellectually stimulating. There have been many times I have rage-scrolled Twitter and my husband has talked me down from my edge by providing an alternate viewpoint, sharing an article, or discussing a recent podcast he listened to. I have done the same for him. We have exposed each other to new ideas we never would have heard, or reasonably considered, had we married into our political bubble. 

Fortunately, what we don’t always share in political views, we do share in core values. We both believe in free thought and free expression, in the importance of family and fiscal responsibility, and in the merits of spending an entire Sunday on the couch watching football. These foundations strengthen our relationship and help us overcome political differences. 

It’s hard to imagine that, in our current climate, I could have written him off because he voted a certain way, especially without even trying to understand the reason why he did. I would be missing out on the value that he as a person brings to each day and the way his perspective could expand mine—and likewise, mine expand his.

But these numbers—and the degree of polarization they suggest—alarm me, particularly because my marriage has been a first-hand account of how a difference in perspective can be a strength rather than a detriment.

Beyond the growth of intrapersonal relationships, it’s perhaps even more valuable to recognize that how we engage within our bubbles creates real-world ripples. Huber and Malhotra’s study (2016) showed that people choose relationship partners not just on ideology, but on the levels of political engagement, “thereby raising the possibility that the country may become increasingly stratified” between those with resources to become involved politically and those without. In short, the study suggests sorting could exacerbate inequalities in policy outcomes.

There isn’t an ideal or simple solution to divisiveness, but there is a challenge for us to question our assumptions and our means of interacting, and maybe even embrace a political disagreement rather than run from it. 

Maybe that’s why I enjoy living in a blue city at the center of a red state, and being in a marriage that also seems to represent the tension of “both.” We learn when we are exposed to other viewpoints, we grow when we hear new ideas, and we make more well-informed political decisions with a wider perspective and more compassion. 

Disagreement is life’s way of revealing its nuance. There is life experience behind every perspective, and to disregard that altogether is to risk dehumanizing whomever we consider as “other.”

Huber, G. A., & Malhotra, N. (2016). Political homophily in social relationships: Evidence from online dating behavior. The Journal of Politics, 79(1), 269-283.
Murray, M. (2022, August 18). A new political divide: Nearly half of college students wouldn’t room with someone who votes differently. NBCNews.com.
Sperling's BestPlaces. (n.d.). Politics & voting in Lexington-Fayette, Kentucky. BestPlaces. Retrieved October 12, 2022.
Whaley, N. (2018, October 20). Dating apps are getting more political ahead of midterm elections. What does that say about users? Mic.

Audrey Kirby O’Gara lives in Lexington, Kentucky, with her husband and spunky border collie mix named Cali. She earned her journalism degree at Ball State University and is currently pursuing a Master of Business Administration at the University of Kentucky. Her favorite things include crisp fall mornings, watching football on Sundays, and insightful political discussions.