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'The Atlantic': 'These Are The Americans Who Live In A Bubble'

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

About 1 in 5 Americans has little or no contact with people of a different religion. About 1 in 5 Americans also reports scant contact with people of a different race, and large minorities rarely encounter someone with different political beliefs. That's according to a new study by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic magazine. Atlantic writer Emma Green talked with Rachel Martin about Americans who live in a bubble.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Can you tell us, why did you do this poll? I mean, what was the going-in theory or question you were trying to answer?

EMMA GREEN: One of the big questions that has really been at the fore of American politics, particularly in the last couple of years, is whether Americans actually think diversity is good, whether they want to live in a pluralistic democracy where people can be themselves but they can also live side by side with neighbors who aren't the same as them. This was a huge theme in the 2016 election, and it's just gotten more and more forefront in politics since then.

So we wanted to actually understand people's lives. What is it like for them to encounter people of difference? Do they like it? Do they hate it? Do they feel comfortable with their children marrying into families that are very different than their own?

MARTIN: So let's talk about the difference between living side by side - like, running into someone at a convenience store or at the dry cleaners - and really incorporating people who are different than you into your actual lives. Because those are different experiences, right?

GREEN: They are. And we know from social science that the depth of relationships with people of difference really, really matters in how that influences your view of politics or maybe your openness to thinking differently about the world. This survey didn't measure exactly the depth of relationships. We use the word encounter. So that could be anything from that chance encounter on public transportation to the grocery store. But we did have a few measures that suggests a deep ambivalence across a lot of different categories that people have with incorporating people of difference into their lives.

The stat that stuck out to me most was that 45 percent of Democrats said they would be unhappy with their child marrying someone from a different political party, and 35 percent of Republicans said the same thing. This is a huge portion of people who really feel strongly that their kids shouldn't marry someone with a different political ideology.

MARTIN: So what's behind that? Because you can make the argument that your political identity is an extension of how you see the world, right? And I suppose if a parent is of one political stripe and their child goes a different direction or marries someone of a different political identity, that that would be some kind of repudiation of their view on the world.

GREEN: That's exactly right. And, you know, to make sense of these findings, I called up a scholar who I really admire, Lilliana Mason, who's at the University of Maryland. She said a few things that were interesting to me. The first is that it's not just people's beliefs that are being grouped around their partisan affiliation. It's also their taste in television shows and cars and what they buy.

So in other words, partisan identity has become more than just about politics. It's about cultural identity and a sense of who you are. And the more that that all gets wrapped together, the harder it is to see someone else who comes from another perspective or party very clearly.

And the other thing that she brought up is to point out that it's hard to be in community with people who are different than you. There's something to be said for just avoiding being in those situations of conflict. It might not be good for our democracy in the long run, but it is an understandable motivation.

MARTIN: So when does it cross a line? I mean, when does wanting sameness or homogeneity in your immediate community start to run at odds with what America was founded on as this pluralistic, multicultural society?

GREEN: It seems clear that some forms of segregation are just ugly, just plain ugly. And that, of course, is most obvious when it comes to racial segregation. We know not just that the long history of America has created explicit forms of segregation but also that people make choices all the time about where they're going to live, wanting a certain type of lot in the suburbs, wanting a certain type of good school. All of these decisions can add up to de facto racial segregation. And the other thing I would say is that we're in this time when there's a really big question around partisan mixing, as well.

You know, as we were talking about before, these cultural identities that have come to be attached to Democrat versus Republican have made it ever more difficult for people of different ideologies to sit down, have a conversation and understand where another person is coming from.

MARTIN: Emma Green writes for The Atlantic. Her most recent piece is titled, "These Are The Americans Who Live In Bubbles." Emma, thanks so much for sharing your reporting.

GREEN: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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