When I was growing up, I heard the adage to never discuss two things with guests: religion and politics. The rationale was that these two subjects more often lead to contention and strong feelings. This year those strong feelings and contentious discussions are leading to more than arguments and awkward moments with friends and family: they’re leading to the end of relationships. We’ve gone from being able to agree to disagree to believing that politics are bringing out the worst in others.
A poll conducted by Monmouth University lays the situation out pretty clearly: “Fully 70% of American voters say that this year’s presidential campaign has brought out the worst in people. Only 4% say it has brought out the best in people. Another 5% say it has done a little of both and 20% say it has done neither. Democrats (78%), Republicans (65%), and independents (66%) agree that the 2016 campaign has brought out the worst in people.” The poll finds 7 percent of Americans reporting they’ve lost a friend over this election. Slightly more Hillary Clinton supporters than Donald Trump supporters reported losing friends.
When the worst of all of us is out in full force, it’s bad news for our relationships. Social media makes it more difficult to avoid politics with even distant acquaintances, and seeing the political views and stories that people choose to share when feelings are so volatile can make it hard to maintain friendships with people who fall on different sides of the issues.
Political Differences Now a Bridge Too Far
I have personally encountered this phenomenon over the past year. Relationships I had assumed were rock-solid and would stay close and genial have shifted, and in at least one case ended, perhaps forever. It’s painful and still jarring to think that a friendship that extended through different life phases was not able to weather the fiery issues this election has brought front and center.
I’ve never thought the only friends worth having are those who agree with me on all counts, and I think only talking to those who share the same opinions can create an echo chamber and not challenge people to examine their views. I value relationships that push me to be my personal best, but it seems that politics can bring out the worst side of me.
With friendly debates, we can agree to disagree, and leave the subject with the relationship intact. The desire to differ and still be friendly is not new, either. In 1704 John Piggot queried: “And now why should we not agree to differ, without either enmity or scorn?”
So It’s Come to This
If we’ve reached a point where we can no longer discuss differences without jettisoning relationships, things are grim indeed. According to a recent article from NPR on this subject, some of this may actually relate to how connected we think we are online, while in reality we’re mostly seeing information we already agree with:
‘What most algorithms are trying to do is to increase engagement, increase the amount of attention you’re spending on that platform,’ Eli Pariser, CEO of Upworthy, a liberal news website says. And while it’s a nice that we have an instrument to help us cope with the fire hose of information supplied by the Internet, that algorithm also carries some downsides. ‘The danger is that increasingly you end up not seeing what people who think differently see and in fact not even knowing that it exists.’
If our worst is out in full force because of this election, should we avoid politics with those of different persuasions to maintain our relationships? That doesn’t help anyone decide who to actually vote for this November, or remind those in the various #neverwhoever camps that voting down-ticket matters, very much. Political facebooking might not be good at changing people’s minds, but real, face-to-face conversations still have significant value. There’s every possibility you will not change the minds of those around you, but with civility and patience on both sides, we can all work on being more educated about our opinions.
I may have lost a valued friendship because of how I’ve discussed politics, but this year isn’t doom and gloom for all relationships. We can choose to play it safe, avoid politics (and religion, too) in conversation, and keep things as they are. Or we can try to branch out from our comfortable echo-chambers and see what the other side is saying, and why they think differently. Maybe what we’ll find is that we really are too different and there is no way to even agree to disagree, but we also might grow in our views and learn from each other. Really, that should be a goal for all of our friendships.