SALT LAKE CITY — The adage to avoid talking politics and religion will likely hold true for Americans gathering with family and friends for Independence Day celebrations — particularly politics.
A recent survey on the state of political discourse in the United States said most Americans find talking politics is not worth the tension it can cause as political conversations have become more negative, less fact-based and less substantive.
"People’s everyday conversations about politics and other sensitive topics are often tense and difficult," the Pew Research Center concluded. "Half say talking about politics with people they disagree with politically is 'stressful and frustrating.'"
While a political discussion has always come with the risk of turning unpleasant, 85% of the more than 10,000 people Pew surveyed said it has become worse in recent years. And, most of them blame it on social media, political leaders and the person who has come to embody and dominate both of those arenas — President Donald Trump.
More than half said Trump has changed the tone and nature of political debate in this country for the worse, just 24% said the president has changed it for the better and 20% said he has had little impact.
"Majorities of Americans say they often or sometimes feel a range of negative sentiments — including concern, confusion, embarrassment and exhaustion — about the things that Trump says," Pew reported.
But, "54% say they at least sometimes feel entertained by what he says."
And Americans believe the stakes are high when their elected officials amp up the harsh rhetoric against their rivals or demonize other groups.
"A substantial majority (78%) says 'heated or aggressive' language directed by elected officials against certain people or groups makes violence against them more likely."
But that doesn't mean conversations between family and friends with political differences must turn angry or, at worst, come to blows. Larry and Laura Green shared with the Deseret News how they avoid political discord in their Sandy, Utah, home, where she's the conservative and Larry is the liberal.
Instead of trying to talk about things they know they disagree on, they focus on what they both love — skiing, the symphony, their children and grandchildren.
“Politics is a bump in the road compared to the totality of our relationship,” says Larry.
And when politics do come up, they respect each other's differences.
Level of comfort
Setting boundaries on topics of discussion may be easier to do among family and friends who know each other. But what about among people you don't know that well?
Pew found topics people felt most comfortable talking about with others they don't know were weather (96%), entertainment (89%), economy (77%), sports (69%) or religion (61%). The comfort level drops to 56% when the topic is Trump and to 52% for politics in general.
The survey asked respondents if they would be willing to talk about a specific topic at a small dinner party with people they disagree with, but don't know. The topics were whether to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, ban assault style weapons, expand the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border or approve of Trump's job as president.
Clear majorities on either side of the issue of minimum wage, gun policy or the border wall would be willing to share their views with others they don't know and disagree with.
But when the dinner table scenario was Trump's job approval, the comfort gap widened. Of those who approved of the president's job, 57% said they would share their views about Trump with those who didn't, while only 43% who disapproved of his job said they would share their views among people who said they liked Trump.
And among those who would share their views about Trump, the most common reason for speaking up is they felt it important that others knew where they stand. The next most common reason was their strong feelings about the president compelled them to say something.
For those who would not share their views about Trump, 57% of those who disapproved of the president and 56% of those who approved said they didn't want to offend anyone or create conflict or discomfort.
The Trump effect
Trump has changed the tone and nature of political discourse, Pew concluded, and most respondents don't want their elected officials to engage in heated or aggressive language.
While a majority of Americans (55%) said Trump has had a negative effect on political discourse, the responses were more divided among Republicans, where 49% said the president has changed the tone of political debate for the better, 23% for the worse and 27% not much at all.
The emotional responses to what the president says was negative, overall, Pew found.
"Concerned" topped the list of negative emotions, with 48% saying that's what they most often felt in response to Trump's comments, followed by exhausted (41%), embarrassed (39%), confused (38 percent), insulted (38%), angry (36%) or frightened (26%).
Capturing 21% or fewer respondents were positive emotions, such as hopeful, happy or inspired, felt most often in response to Trump's comments.
While majorities of Republicans also felt concerned or confused by the president's comments, large majorities of Republicans felt a range of positive emotions in response to Trump's political discourse.
There was broad agreement that elected officials should avoid heated or aggressive language.
"Majorities in both parties say there is a connection between the language officials use to talk about certain groups and the possibility of violence," Pew reported. "Consistent with this view, 73% of the public says elected officials should avoid heated or aggressive language because it could encourage some people to take violent action."
At a recent House committee hearing on the rise in white supremacy violence in America, Democrats and several witnesses blamed the president's heated rhetoric for fanning the flames of racial and religious violence, the Deseret News reported.
But Republicans have also criticized Trump's language for contributing to the country's divisive political climate. Chief among those critics has been Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who penned an op-ed in The Washington Post saying the president sets the tone for the nation's political discourse and that Trump had failed on that score.
"A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity, and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect," Romney wrote, days before he was sworn in Jan. 3. "With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring."