Not too many years ago, families divided by politics evoked a light-hearted tone.
In 1964, The Associated Press published a photo of the L.B. Nixon family of Riverside, California. It showed Dad pointing at a bumper sticker for Barry Goldwater, Mom pointing at one for Lyndon Johnson, and the family’s three young girls pointing at one urging people to vote for Ringo, the drummer for the Beatles. Everyone was smiling.
Today, such a photo might be taken outside a divorce court. Instead of smiling, the three girls might be wondering whether the Trump or Biden parent would get custody and what that, in turn, would mean for the friends they could attract.
Even in an age when millions of Americans cast their ballots early, Election Day ought to be celebrated as a symbol of America’s 244 years of channeling chaos into prosperity. The nation’s motto, e pluribus unum, or “out of many, one,” implies an overriding respect for democracy’s ability to settle political conflicts, and for the peaceful setting aside of differences in favor of a strength and unity of purpose.
Who we choose is never as important as what we are.
Sadly, the opposite is becoming more common. Social media abounds with people openly renouncing friends and disowning family members over differences in their choices for president.
A report from Reuters on Monday spotlighted these feuds. One woman told of her 21-year-old son cutting her out of his life. “You are no longer my mother,” she recounted him saying. Friendships are being torn apart. Marriages are ending. Children and grandchildren are severing ties with families.
Not only is this trend disturbing, it is elevating politics and the cliches and exaggerations that surround it to a level of importance higher than society’s most basic building block: family. What son or daughter who took the time to seriously ponder the nurturing and training of a parent would reject a father or mother over a presidential choice? What family member would throw away generations of familial heritage over something less significant than a mess of pottage?
This type of hatred has its roots in an age-old trick of the propagandist in war, which is to dehumanize an opponent and reduce him to a one-dimensional character.
One side labels the other as racist or misogynistic. The other side tosses back the moniker of a baby killer. Nuances and rational discussions are seldom considered, let alone articulated. Political discussions have all the depth of a pep rally.
Tania Israel, a professor in the counseling, clinical and school psychology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently told NPR, “We’re flattening people out in terms of our view of them, and we’re not really seeing the full complexity of people on the other side.”
The Pew Research Center recently did a survey that found almost 80% of both Biden and Trump supporters say they have few, and in some cases no, friends who support the other candidate.
That’s a sobering thought on a day when counties from coast to coast begin to tally ballots. It’s especially sobering considering the toll this takes on families. The only remedy is for each American to resolve to treat the outcome of this day, no matter who wins, as less important than the things that really matter in life. Consider what will matter most when your life nears its end — your choice for president in 2020, or your family and friends.
Think again of that smiling family from 1964. The girls are likely all senior citizens today, the issues of that race have long faded into history books. But our hope is that their families have endured and grown in importance. That is how it ought to be.