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Lessons from the most politically tolerant places in the US

Lessons from the most politically tolerant places in the US
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Today, a significant and rising number of Americans endorse the use of political violence against their opponents — including four out of 10 Republicans — with upwards of 70 percent of us feeling it is likely to occur in the near future. Recently, a U.S. district judge issued a warning on the high probability of more Jan. 6-like violence due to former President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpGuardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa wins GOP primary in NYC mayor's race Garland dismisses broad review of politicization of DOJ under Trump Schumer vows next steps after 'ridiculous,' 'awful' GOP election bill filibuster MORE's ongoing weaponization of the "Big Lie" over the stealing of the 2020 election, which he repeated again Saturday night.

These events are transpiring in a nation trapped in a decades-long trajectory of increasingly toxic political polarization that is highly addictive and making us sick.

Yet even in this context, thousands of individuals and families living in dozens of counties across America have somehow managed to fight off these forces of discord and promote political tolerance.

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These are the top 1 percent of the most politically-tolerant counties in America, according to a 2019 poll taken by PredictWise. They are places spread out across our landscape, from Adams, Wash., and Beaver, Utah, to counties in Texas, North Carolina and upstate New York. What can we learn from these islands of agreement holding out against the cultural riptide dividing us?

We recently ran a study comparing the top and bottom 1 percent of politically-tolerant counties in the U.S. to see what we might learn. We used the county rankings from the 2019 survey on affective polarization — or degrees of mutual dislike and distrust felt between Republicans and Democrats — to identify the top and bottom counties, and then mined this data, as well as data from the 2019 U.S. Census and the U.S. Crisis Monitor. Here’s what we found. 

The top 1 percent are much safer

The differences found in affective polarization between the top and bottom counties were highly significant (average scores of 6.5 out of 7 for the bottom versus 4.2 for the top). We also found major differences in the numbers of hate crimes reported in 2020, with 5.74 hate crimes per 100,00 people reported in the bottom 1 percent compared to .35 per 100,000 in the top, a more than 10-fold difference.

Democrats and independents are most intolerant

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We also discovered large partisan differences in these data in the degrees to which Democrats, Republicans and independents felt enmity for the other side. Across both the top and bottom 1 percent, those counties with more Democrats and independents evidenced much higher levels of disdain for members of the other parties. Republican strongholds, however, reported much lower levels of dislike for the other side. Democrats only made up 16 percent of the most tolerant counties, with Republicans constituting 81 percent and independents 3.5 percent. The bottom-ranked counties were more evenly split with 44 percent Democrats, 51 percent Republicans and 6 percent independents being the least tolerant. This of course may reflect the fact that in 2019 when these data were collected, Trump was president and Republicans held majorities in both houses in Congress and had control over most state capitals (and a large swath of the media). It may be much easier to feel generous toward the other when you are on top.

Mixing partisans matters most

The most practical finding in this study was related to the high degree of partisan mixing found in the top 1 percent. These counties were found to have significantly higher levels of what is called cross cutting-ness, or more balanced numbers of Democrats and Republicans at the neighborhood level, than the bottom 1 percent. 

In fact, across all counties in our dataset, higher levels of cross cutting-ness in neighborhoods were associated with lower levels of affective polarization, meaning the more opportunities were present for interpartisan mixing, the more likely tolerance was high. 

Here, again, we found partisan differences. Across the top and bottom 1 percent of counties, Democrats and independents were found less likely to live in places with higher levels of interpartisan cross cutting-ness than Republicans. 

The fact that partisan mixing matters is supported by decades of research, which has shown that communities with more robust cross-cutting structures, or marriages, schools, sports teams, workplaces and places of worship that bring people across political differences together, tend to be more accepting of one another. In our study, religious organizations seemed to play a central role promoting cross-partisan contact, with more religious counties showing much higher scores on cross cutting-ness. 

Given that humans are strongly inclined to seek out and interact with those who are similar to themselves, intentionally creating these integrative spaces matters. Especially these days when geographical sorting has led to exceptionally high levels of partisan sorting — even in urban areas — structures that bring us together across political differences are vital to our public health.

When Americans are socialized or incentivized to live, love and work together across their differences, even superstorms of polarization such as that we are living through today have less sway. Somehow, we still manage to create unity out of diversity. Americans of all stripes should take heed.

Peter T. Coleman is a professor at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and sustainable peace. His latest book, “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization.”

Chelsea Hughes is a social-organizational psychologist who has worked in community development initiatives in South Africa and Thailand.

Anthea Chan, MS, is research coordinator of the Difficult Conversations Lab at the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University.