The word “rant” is overused in describing today’s political discourse, but what this man, a psychologist in his 50s, is working himself up to can hardly be called anything else.
He is sitting at a table in a gracious home in Grosse Pointe Park, among friends and friends of friends, invited to a discussion about why people on opposite sides of political arguments find it so hard to get along. There’s pizza and salad, beer and wine, but evidently not even these social salves are working.
Asked to share any experience where he might have been estranged from a friend or family member over politics, he replies, “I am estranged from everybody.” The table roars with laughter, but he goes on: Self-described as “extremely liberal,” he acknowledges those who say “we have to get along.” However, he adds, “I can’t find common ground with people who struggle with evolution as an issue. It’s the Scopes monkey trial all over again, and I really don’t have time for it anymore.”
As we gather for Thanksgiving, the country is, we hear often these days, more divided than ever. Whether one’s household skews red or blue, we’re likely to find ourselves having a number of common experiences in times like these: A social-media friend posts regularly about the president’s Kenyan birth and secret Muslim allegiances. A parent becomes obsessed with events at a Libyan embassy he couldn’t find on a map. An adult child returns home for Thanksgiving dinner, only to demand the table discuss Rachel Maddow’s revelations about the abuse of “immediate effect” legislation by Michigan Republicans.
How bad is it? Even the Cheneys, whom progressives consider the Vader family of American politics, are feuding over gay marriage.
Two well-paid advocates insulting one another might make for good television. But parents and children doing the same over Thanksgiving turkey can split families and friends, or at least leave wounds that remain tender for years.
Marci Raver is an etiquette expert in Ann Arbor. Among her accomplishments is the organization of a G8 conference dinner in Detroit during the Clinton administration, but even she admits the tensions of today can be more confounding than seating the leaders of the world’s largest economies.
She recalls an incident from her own past, when she was hosting a christening party for her infant daughter at the same time a sexually explicit Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts was at the center of a late-‘80s culture-war skirmish. Raver was working at the museum, and a defender of the photos.
“I didn’t even have the first bite of food in my mouth when someone walked up and said, ‘So, you think this Mapplethorpe guy is an artist,’” she recalled. The guest was clearly in a challenging mood, and Raver chose to fall back on good manners and not engage. “No amount of explaining would work on him. You have to choose your battles.”
Today, the infant at that christening is now a college graduate, and had her job in environmental health eliminated due to the government shutdown last month. Her mother’s pretty unhappy about that. The casualties of the country’s long-running cold war are many.
A house divided
Earlier this year, the Atlantic/Aspen Institute American Values Survey polled more than 2,000 of us to confirm what everybody knows: “More than 60 percent of Americans say we are more divided as a country now than we were 10 years ago, with even higher percentages saying America is at least as fragmented now as it was during the Great Depression, Vietnam, and Watergate,” the Atlantic reported. What’s more, it’s not the usual social and cultural issues driving us apart:
“When asked which figures in America do the most to divide our nation, every group in America, across age, gender, political party, and region said ‘politicians,’ choosing them at a rate of more than five to one over media figures, corporations, religious leaders, and others.”
It’s hardly surprising. It is possible, in the million-channel universe, to construct an information silo all your own, tuned to your own prejudices and opinions. And when you’re not watching your artisanal news menu, you can get a few laughs on a different channel.
For decades, both ends of the political spectrum have tapped a rich vein of profits turning politics into entertainment. From “The Daily Show” to “Fox & Friends,” producers and performers have drawn eyeballs to the spectacle of Ann Coulter flogging her latest book (perhaps with a nuanced, subtle title like “Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America”), or by getting liberals and conservatives to yell at each other in split-screen.
Is it any wonder this sometimes translates to family members drawing knives over the mashed potatoes?
“We’re turning public affairs into entertainment,” said John Clexton, a librarian and another guest at the aforementioned Grosse Pointe Park roundtable. “They’re professional big-time wrestlers. They do their stuff and go home. But the rest of us don’t know it’s a show.”
That description seems apt for the angry liberal psychologist in the room. As the conversation goes on around the table, he comes back to the idea, appalling in his telling, that he has to treat faith-based beliefs with respect, especially if people who hold them might be making laws that affect his family. He shakes it like a dog with a bone – “(People say), ‘Oh, you want to make society secular? Yes. Please. Let’s have a secular society” – and finally announces he is too angry to discuss this anymore, rises and leaves.
His parting words: “I hope I didn’t offend anybody.”
A kinder, gentler Tea Party
Over in Michigan’s thumb, Todd Courser is considering the question of how he gets along with people who disagree with him. The Michigan Tea Party activist wants to remake the state’s GOP by pushing it further to the right. And his first response – “I was birthed out of a Democrat family” – seems to promise fireworks. (The refusal to use the -ic suffix on Democrat in its adjectival form is widely seen as a slur by those so described.)
But that is the last needling remark made by Courser who, it turns out, has a lively biography based in mid-Michigan, where his parents ran their home as an unofficial halfway house for anyone down on their luck, some of whom stayed just long enough for a hot meal, and others for months and years.
It was common, Courser said, to come downstairs in the morning to find three bottomed-out alcoholics sleeping on the living-room floor. His is a large family to begin with, so Thanksgivings and Christmases usually have around 75 people in attendance. He has broad and deep experience getting along with people who have different opinions. And then there was his grandmother, now deceased.
“She was a communist,” he said. “A real flesh-and-blood communist. And an atheist. We were at odds from the time I was 9 or 10, but we had a great relationship. That opposition formed my belief that you can’t let ideology trump relationships. She’d say, ‘Todd, if you don’t make some people angry in the world, you haven’t said anything.’”
Courser said he has one uncle with whom he disagrees. “It’s been very, very difficult for him. Some people feel offended by the idea that you don’t believe what they believe. The last few family events, he was maybe moving past some of that. But you have to be open for relationships to become more distant. People aren’t always coming in your direction. You have to model godliness, even though you’re at odds with them.”
The long view
Why is it so hard to get past issues that will, like all issues, fade away?
It’s difficult to remember, in the heat of a given day, that the country has never been one big campfire sing-along. Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in 1804. Sen. Charles Sumner was beaten to unconsciousness on the Senate floor in 1856. In the 1960s, fathers threw sons out of the house over the length of their hair or their views on the Vietnam War. If there’s anything special about this period of estrangement, history hasn’t weighed in yet.
The toll is taken in relationships soured for weeks, years or forever.
Laurie Rudnick, who hosted the discussion in Grosse Pointe Park, had a college friend, a very close one. Even though they lived in different states after graduation, they visited one another often, until a fateful year in U.S. politics – 2000.
“At the time of the Bush-Gore election, she was living in Florida, a state in the balance, and we called her to make sure she gets out and votes,” said Rudnick, who was supporting Al Gore. It turned out the friend did plan to vote – for George W. Bush. Rudnick’s husband, Paul Burgoyne, took the phone and tried to change her mind.
“I said, ‘You went to college. What secret do you think you’re learning on AM radio?’” Burgoyne said.
“The conversation ended, and I have never spoken to her since,” Rudnick said. “I have tried to contact her with handwritten letters, emails, Facebook. I sent her Christmas cards, thinking I would get through to her.