Linda, a 51-year-old business owner in San Antonio, was raised in a “hard-core conservative, hard-core Christian” home; her mother was a player in statewide Republican politics. Both her parents passed away years before former President Donald Trump emerged and remade the GOP in his image, but she still grew up immersed in Republican red.
Linda, who wants only her first name used for privacy reasons, has moved away from the politics and religion of her origins. While she eschews political labels, she definitely identifies with the more progressive stream of American politics and culture these days.
Which has caused some conflict with an older sister, who didn’t vote for Trump, but who harbors some right-wing sentiments nonetheless.
“She’ll say things like, ‘All Lives Matter,’ which is just confusing because, like me, she has a child who is biracial,” Linda said. “She’ll say things like, ‘Why isn’t there a White History Month?’ I’m like, how can she say that and still be supportive of her son?”
Then there are her sister’s comments about her wealthy friends — how it’s understandable they would vote for Trump “because they don’t like socialism, they worked hard for their money and shouldn’t have to pay more in taxes.”
All of which causes Linda’s teeth to grind.
She’s hardly alone. When historians look back on this cultural epoch of America — if there’s still an America — surely one of the grimmest features will be the way politics ripped asunder the fabric of so many familial relationships.
A cornucopia of potential landmines exists — COVID-19 and vaccines, immigration, abortion, gun laws, climate change, gay rights, police brutality, what to teach in schools. Mix in persistent false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and the latest addition to the seemingly never-ending Trump show, the Mar-a-Lago search and discovery of classified documents.
Layer on top the thick stew of ever-evolving conspiracy theories, the quagmire of QAnon and the tendency of all of us to retreat to our respective media echo chambers, where the dim view we hold of the other side only darkens.
The gap between red and blue America over what it means to be a patriotic citizen — and over what even counts as truth and fact — has widened into a chasm, taking too many previously loving (or at least civil) relationships with it.
A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute shows that 8 in 10 Republicans believe the Democratic Party has been taken over by socialists, while nearly 8 in 10 Democrats believe the other side has been taken over by racists.
Nearly 80% of Americans now have “just a few” or no friends at all across the political aisle, according to the Pew Research Center.
It’s a discord that only threatens to deepen, with fresh outrages guaranteed to emerge in coming weeks and months as the country barrels toward the November midterm elections, pouring gasoline on an already flammable situation.
The anger emanates from both sides of the aisle.
Last winter, Mike Logsdon, 62, a Republican and a landscape designer who lives in Boerne, got into it with a female friend over COVID-19 and the need for vaccinations.
Mike and his wife Nancy reluctantly received the vaccine to be able to go on a trip to Israel. But he told his friend that his daughter had decided to opt out, worried the vaccine might hurt her chances of getting pregnant. (Studies show the vaccine doesn’t affect fertility, although the disease might; neither does it cause an increase in miscarriages.)
Logsdon said the friend called his daughter — and her own kids —morons for not getting the vaccine, prefacing the word with a salty expletive.
“I said to her, ‘Why are you spewing this venom at me?’” he said. “It’s like her head was twisting off.”
Logsdon voted for Trump twice, saying “that was the only option for me,” and added that while he’s not a “Trump-lover” he believes the former president “has done some good things.” The friend he clashed with, on the other hand, is a “Trump-despiser.”
“You can’t even bring him up a little,” said Logsdon, a conservative Christian. “She listens to CNN, which is the Democrat news station, and I listen to FOX and OAN Network, which are the Republican stations.”
And ne’er the twain shall meet, apparently. He and his friend haven’t spoken since.
Who knows how many battered relationships — temporary estrangements, unspoken détentes, outright ruptures — have occurred in households across the country in recent years.
The battle has invaded my own family.
My older sister is a Christian evangelical who fell prey to the various internet conspiracies that deemed the COVID-19 vaccine a hoax, putting her stock in outlier doctors on the web instead of credible institutions like the CDC and the American Medical Association. She traveled down the QAnon rabbit hole, including #savethechildren, the vile conspiracy theory that claimed liberal elites are sex-trafficking children (and worse.).
Over text, she outright told me she no longer believed in the “mainstream media,” an institution I’ve worked in for over three decades. (She did state, paradoxically, that she thought my work was always legit. Hmmm.)
I tried to surf these dismal waves with as much dispassion as I could, but I put my foot down when she texted, early in the COVID-19 wave, that she’d gotten her hands on some hydroxychloroquine. She was eager to supply pills to our uninfected 94-year-old mother in her assisted living facility.
I blew up. Texted that I was going to acquire medical power of attorney and do whatever I could to stop her. (I did.) Our text exchanges grew even more fiery, concluding with her saying she disowned me as a sister.
Our estrangement lasted for several months, and ended only when she learned that my husband had undergone a serious (but ultimately successfully resolved) health crisis. Since then, we’ve managed an uneasy truce around political and cultural issues, it would seem. I don’t bring up potentially explosive topics, and neither does she.
How long this rickety unspoken treaty will last is anyone’s guess. I know I’m not the only one of any belief set who is trying to maneuver a very tricky calculus: How do you stay true to your convictions while also maintaining family peace, or friendship ties?
As the holiday season looms — it will be Thanksgiving before you know it — how does one balance the desire to open someone’s eyes to the truth, while keeping them in your life? An arduous if not impossible task in a moment when algorithms, factions and opt-in news feeds seem to separate people into two different realities — with two sets of facts that constitute truth.
Amid all the bile, many of us have reduced the other side to caricatures. Those who voted for Trump have been wholesale pegged as Nazis, racists, misogynists or gay-haters. Democrats, in turn, are called baby-killers, pro-pedophile groomers or rank socialists.
During the recent primary elections, a number of Republican candidates went so far as painting Democrats as not just misguided, not just wrong, but outright evil. I’ve heard a similar impulse wafting from leftist ranks. Indeed, I’ve indulged in this temptation myself.
One thing I do know to be true: Once you’ve identified your opponent as evil, as subhuman, all hope for meaningful dialogue vanishes.
Experts offer helpful tips on how to turn down the temperature on toxic conversations. Be humble. Be curious, not defensive. Ask questions. Listen. Keep expectations low. Seek common ground. Go for the heart, not just the head. Facts matter, but human experiences matter more. Don’t argue over text or email or other social media, because people say things online that they would never say face-to-face.
Or you could just agree to not talk about politics.
My offspring Sam, who identifies as nonbinary and voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016, says staying silent is no longer an option: These days, words can harm, even kill. I’m reminded of the great Desmond Tutu quote: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Of course, I imagine people on both sides could bend this quote to their use.
Sometimes Linda, the business owner, tells herself — and her sister — it’s OK to agree to disagree and then just leave it at that. Other times she has to speak up, no matter the consequences.
“I do love my sister, but when it comes to some of these issues, I feel like I have to draw a line in the sand,” she said. “If she brings stuff up, I’m going to say what I need to say.”
As for this writer, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to change my sister’s mind on her beliefs, and I’m damn sure she’s not going to change mine.
But peace can still come, in baby steps. When she had a birthday last June, I baked her a cake.