Friends on Opposing Ends

More people are avoiding affiliations with people of differing political views. Can conservatives and liberals still be friendly in a polarized political landscape?

It’s hard to pinpoint how exactly the dinner table became just as known for being a site of contention as it is of togetherness. After the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, we can safely assume plenty of dinner tables across the continent have turned into verbal battlegrounds. Family gatherings can transform into treacherous territory when politics are invited to spoil the party.

We can’t choose our families, but political discourse can erupt at any social interaction. This can apply to the working world, as well as among our circle of friends. It’s difficult to ignore politics these days, and many are unable to conceal their beliefs.

Some people who strive to be economical with their social efforts. When it comes to meeting new people, it has become common to skip past the niceties and head straight into talking politics. It’s human instinct to protect our own values, especially in polarized times.

If someone comes across a person with opposite beliefs, red flags are raised. The best interaction they could muster is some fake hellos and any potential connection they could’ve had goes out the window.

What’s even worse is when political differences result in established friendships coming to an end. If you learn that a friend sided with a political party you are vehemently against, do you choose friendship or your own values?

According to a 2015 Stanford University study, many are finding it customary to reject people of opposing political views. “If anything, the rhetoric and actions of political leaders demonstrate that hostility directed at the opposition is acceptable, even appropriate. Partisans therefore feel free to express animus and engage in discriminatory behaviour toward opposing partisans.”

Where do you draw the line? Everyone’s tolerance levels vary. They are determined by one’s environment and their feelings of safety and security. If parties on opposite ends of the spectrum mutually make an effort to be civil with one another, the dialogue wouldn’t necessarily end in catastrophe. At least, most of the time.

It depends on how staunch their moral oppositions are, and how bonded their identities are with the politics in question.

So, if you find out your friend voted for a party that is staunchly against yours, what can you do?

Let the elephant follow you to every room?

A common way people preserve friendships is by adopting a ‘code of silence.’ Discussing politics is considered taboo, and they can find it worthwhile to converse about similar interests like films or sports. However, codes of silence—or biting tongues—are becoming a less popular approach, especially for someone loyal to their own values.

Furthermore, political lines have intertwined with culture. They can draw in pop culture, sports, and other avenues that were traditionally deemed apolitical. Even expressing your support of a sports team like the Patriots would likely get a few responses that allude to Tom Brady’s support of Donald Trump. Same with the Lakers and LeBron James’ left-leaning politics. When conversations avoid a political sphere, it can feel like ignoring the elephant in the room.

For politically outspoken people, maintaining civility can be an ordeal of pretense. There is a layer of artificiality in the dynamic. As human beings, we have a need to seek out genuine relationships.

That said, codes of silence mainly work best for people who are disengaged from politics.

Keep your “enemies” closer?

Funnily enough, there are also folks whose relationships supersede political barriers. They can engage in civil political debates simply because they enjoy the exercise. Psychology Today suggests that this could be a healthy practice. “It turns out that talking about politics with friends, even if you’re on different sides of the political spectrum, can actually have a beneficial impact.”

Two outspoken members from the U.S. Republican and Democratic parties, Mary Matalin and James Carville have been married for 26 years, despite being from different sides of the political spectrum. They co-authored a book, Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters and One Louisiana Home, about maintaining a politically divided household. The book’s overarching themes pertain to how the couple’s mutual love and respect transcends any hostility that their opposing philosophies drum up. Moreover, they found a way to make their ideologically adversarial dynamic flourish.

“Many people thought it was some kind of stunt marriage, but we knew what we were getting into,” wrote Carville. “Sure, we have the Republican-versus-Democrat dynamic, sleeping with the enemy or whatever. But what two married people have ever been exactly alike? How boring.”

Matalin and Carville are not alone. There are other couples and friends who have a similar dynamic, often joking about cancelling each other’s votes on election time. Others, however, make it a mission for their politics to be represented in government, and cannot bring themselves to break bread with their enemies.

This kind of set up only applies if you’re able to shake things off. And this ability is a privilege. For a marginalized person, debate surrounds their very identities, and it can put them in a vulnerable position.

Walking in their shoes

Maintaining a cross-political dialogue could also depend on the subject matter and its proximity to social identity. Debates about tax rates would not usually result in hard feelings, but whenever the head of the nation South of the border comes up, for example, there’s potential for escalation.

Identity politics are usually where the party lines are drawn. Being of the “belief” that homosexuality is sinful, for example, is not merely an opinion, but it is invalidating one’s being. The issue of gatekeeping immigration puts Mexican, Muslim, and other marginalized identities in the spotlight, and discussing police accountability brings in the racial context in law enforcement corruption. I could go on, to the point of arguing that any and every issue has to do with social identities.

But this could also be a starting point.

Something to keep in mind is there is a reason, good or bad, for everyone’s chosen political affiliation. You can even run into marginalized people who vote conservative, despite how common narratives treat them as anomalies. Conversely, you shouldn’t be surprised to spot a Liberal or NDP lawn sign amidst a sea of Conservative ones in a rural Albertan suburb.

If anything, the first step to sorting out any politically-charged strife is comprehending why your political adversary chose to adopt their beliefs. Whether it be for their culture, religion, upbringing, or any context that shaped their perspective. Often, you’ll find it’s due to how they were conditioned by their immediate communities. After you’ve imagined walking a mile in their shoes, then it’s up to you if you’re willing to share a dinner table with them.

Ali Pitargue is a self-described adventurer and storyteller. As a journalist with a special interest in social justice, she is eager to unearth fresh perspectives to share with the world. If she's not writing, she's either watching Star Trek, reading high fantasy novels, or doing self-study on Baroque and Renaissance art.

apitargue@gmail.com