Relationships Across the Aisle

by Novi Zhukovsky | 11/7/18 2:20am

We all have one — the crazy, radical, get-in-your-face uncle, the one you talk to only once a year at Thanksgiving because he makes sure to pull up a chair next to you, smile and ask how you’ve been.  You know him — you spend the night trying to dodge any politically charged topic that might propel him into high gear. You bring up any subject you can think of to distract him from his goal — the weather, arcane Scrabble rules, updates on your mother’s blooming herb garden. But let down your guard for one minute and next thing you know, you’re half an hour into a high-octane lecture on the illegitimacy of capitalism and the coming revolution. It’s just one night though, and by your second serving of pumpkin pie, the words are passing in and out of your ears as easily as the velvety whipped cream has disappeared from your plate.

But what happens when you’re faced with political conflicts you can’t zone out from? What if they come at you in your home or in your school? 

For Katie Smith ’22, a politically vocal Democrat in the predominantly Republican state of Texas, political disagreement was a fact of life, especially at her high school. As a member of the Junior State of America, Smith was responsible for facilitating political discussions among her classmates. However, her attempts did not always produce a constructive exchange of ideas. 

“They often got really rowdy, and there were people who were frequently disrespectful,” Smith said. “One time, someone made a really derogatory comment about Hilary Clinton, specifically referring to Bill’s infidelities. There was definitely [substantive] discussion going on, but then when the climate became more polarized, it got kind of iffy.”

Smith also faced the issue of having two close high school friends who stood on opposite ends of the political spectrum. This presented her with the problem of trying to reconcile the love she felt for them with their rigidly-held political beliefs. 

“It did get to be a little bit difficult at times. I knew that they were good people, but there were aspects of the political party that they aligned with that I didn’t support,” Smith said. “Whenever we had disagreements, it was about specific policies. But sometimes it was hard to understand how what I thought were their values contributed to how they were voting.”

Smith also doubts the two can be separated. 

“I think that your political views are a reflection of your general value system,” she said. “It’s hard to acknowledge that someone may be a really nice person, but that they agree with a political figure who is not a good person.”

Political differences have now compelled Smith to question some of her relationships. The Supreme Court nomination hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh were a watershed. After a particularly disturbing conversation, she was forced to reconsider the future of a friendship. 

And to her surprise, she was compelled to ask herself a question she never had before: how might remaining friends with that person reflect on her?

Smith also realized that her relative privilege enabled her — if she chose — to overlook controversial stances on policies because they may not apply to her. 

“One reason I can even consider putting these differences aside is because the policies may not directly affect me,” Smith admitted. “It makes me feel guilty.”

Jason Sorens, government professor at Dartmouth, believes that these struggles are a reflection of our increasingly polarized political environment. 

“All the evidence we have suggests that our world has become more polarized,” Sorens said. 

Sorens explained how liberal and conservative belief systems are now “clearly sorted” into Democratic and Republican parties, respectively. 

“And in addition to that, we seem to have some additional ideological polarization that happens as a result of partisan rationalization,” he said. “What this means is that people take cues from their own party’s leader about what they should believe on policy questions.”

Sorens also believes another factor that aggravates polarization is a rise in out-party hostility. 

“We still do not see that a majority of partisans have negative attitudes toward people of the other party, but much larger percentages do now than have in the past,” he said. 

He also points out that “a large minority of both Democrats and Republicans report that they would prefer that their child not marry someone of a different party. A few decades ago, that figure was in the single digits.”

Sorens has also observed a shocking escalation in the centrality of political identity. He explains there is a recent trend for Americans to change their religious views in order to bring them into better alignment with their political opinions. In previous generations, even centuries, one assumed that religious conviction was primary.  

Much of this dangerous polarization may be based on false assumptions. According to Sorens, many people think the differences between Democrats and Republicans are much more important than they are in reality. 

“Most of the things that Republicans and Democrats argue about are within the so-called ‘forty-yard lines’ of the political spectrum and really are not issues of fundamental value difference,” Sorens said. 

As the distortion of these schisms grows, and as individuals tend to view members of the other party as more homogeneous than they actually are, they will end up viewing the opposing party as a “monolithic other,” when it isn’t.

Yet Sorens believes that these misconceptions can be rectified, as long as people are willing to check their own biases.

“I see some glimmers of hope in the so-called rationality community that focuses on overcoming your biases and actually stepping out of your own perspective and thinking, ‘Am I seeing things from a biased perspective, or am I really seeing the full picture?’” Sorens said. 

The sad truth is that there is little reason to tone down the polarizing rhetoric. When it comes to politics, there is less incentive to be self-reflective, as “you don’t have to pay a personal cost for being completely biased,” Sorens explained. 

But, Sorens has faith that the nation’s divisions can be overcome.

“I do have hope. Especially if we treat [open-mindedness and curiosity] as praiseworthy in society,” Sorens said. “If we look at people who break these partisan or ideological barriers and praise them, I think that it would make other people emulate their actions.”

Isabel Calihan ’22  shares with Smith the experience of being exposed to a variety of political views. Both within the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where she grew up, and in her immediate family, she knew people of many political stripes. Calihan’s family loved political debate and discussion. 

“Every night at dinner, my dad would pull out a newspaper clipping and read it to us and ask us to discuss it,” Calihan said.

She also notes that her politically inclined and vocal family caused her to challenge her own beliefs regularly, and also trained her to be able to explain and defend them. 

Although most of their discussions ended amicably, Calihan notes that it was easy sometimes to get caught up in the heat of battle. 

“There’s a sort of tribalism that’s easy to fall into when it comes to political debates,” she said. “Especially when you’re faced with someone you disagree with, it can cause you to take an even more radical view.”

Despite the occasional frustration, Calihan believes that her family environment enabled her to be more open-minded when it came to political differences and taught her to engage in constructive political discourse. 

“Because I love my family, and I know them to be very smart and caring, when I watched them look at the same facts and come to different conclusions as me, I learned that I am not always right,” Calihan said. “I am open to having my mind changed, which I think is something that most people aren’t willing to do anymore.”

For Calihan, engaging in political discussion pushed her to embrace political differences, and see the possibility for political opinions to be dynamic and change over time. 

“Politics shouldn’t be something that we divide ourselves into camps over,” Calihan said. “It should be something that is constantly evolving. People should follow their values and stay informed, but more importantly, be open to letting the world change their beliefs.”

As Sorens and Calihan suggest, there may be hope for what currently ails us. Although it takes time, patience and self-reflection, listening to the other side might lead us to better ideas. Perhaps more importantly, it may allow us to see that our differences are not as large as they seem. 

So next time you see your crazy uncle and think you’d rather escape down the basement than hear him out, maybe you’ll engage with him. Who knows? You may just be surprised to learn your beliefs aren’t so polarized, and that they all stem from similar core values. And through that realization, you will have bridged the gap with one person. And maybe, with time and open-minds, we will all see eye to eye.