My family is feuding about politics

Write for Advice

Cary’s classic column from MONDAY, MAR 16, 2009

We’ve got Republicans, we’ve got liberals, and it’s getting ugly.


Dear CT,

Like many extended families, ours has people who live and breathe Republican doctrine, and people who are liberal. Since the early Bush years, we have given each other a wide berth. Cable television has nothing on the “America first! How dare you question our president, you traitor!” rhetoric of some members.

This week, someone sent out an e-mail talking about how Obama’s policies weren’t helping the economy and were probably killing it. Well, the floodgates on both sides opened. People felt personally attacked and were right to. We were attacked, and we attacked right back. Two apologies were made from our side. Their side didn’t acknowledge them. And since then, nothing.

What now? I do want the whole family to be able to be a family, on the about once-yearly occasions that we are together. I don’t know how to walk it back, though. The rift that opened up (even in myself) was shockingly deep and raw and beyond my predicting. If we are like this, no wonder they spit nails at each other in Congress. What do you suggest

Family Feud Participant; or, How Can They Say the Collapse Is Obama’s fault (and be such nice people otherwise?)

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Dear Family Feud Participant,

“Would you like something to eat?” is a nice beginning. “Can I come over and help you mow the lawn?” is another.

You also might ask your relatives questions such as these: Are you still employed? Are you worried about losing your job? Are your friends and co-workers worried? What do they say? How do your own plans for retirement look? Have you changed any of your investment practices? Who was your investment advisor? Did she perform well, or foolishly? What is her outlook for the future? Is your housing secure? Do you have a pension at work? Do you feel that it is secure? Are you in a union? Is there a union where you work? How is the union regarded by your co-workers and company management? How do you feel about the future of your industry as a whole? Is your company gaining or losing market share? To whom or from whom? Europe? Asia? How did you feel about NAFTA when it was enacted? How do you feel about it now? Did your company support it or oppose it? What do your co-workers grumble about in their free time? And what is it like working today as compared to 10 years ago? Are you better off, worse off, or about the same?

In other words, try to move from the conceptual to the concrete. Underneath “political” rhetoric are often real concerns. Many people, when they talk about “politics,” are really talking about their fear of the future, or their failed marriages or anger at their parents or a wounded sense of pride at work or the sad loss of an adolescent hope for an ideal republic the likes of which are found only in fantasy novels. If you listen for your relatives’ real-life concerns, you may learn something. For instance, current economic troubles may affect your nieces’ and nephews’ plans to attend college and raise families. These are things you can talk about regardless of political beliefs.

You know, your letter got me all steamed up about the theoretical underpinnings of the decline of our political discourse, and I wrote a ton about it in the cafe, in a feverish, caffeine-fueled blaze. I also watched Jon Stewart’s interview with Jim Cramer last night and am still a bit buzzed by that. But when I read over what I had written, I realized, you know, I’m no theoretical genius or philosopher. I can sound like a bit of a blowhard, actually. Sometimes I’m just a big word machine. It’s like playing riffs on the guitar: You let loose and some wild stuff comes out and some of it is pretty cool. But there are people in the audience. You look up and you realize, my God! I’ve been noodling for half an hour!

Sometimes it’s better to simplify.

So I quietly cut out about 90 percent of what I had written. Only this was left: Yes, many of us have families. Families, thank God, are made up of individuals. Those individuals may have opinions we consider misguided, but they also have lives that we care about. Concentrate on the lives, not the rhetoric.

This is not to say, “Don’t discuss politics with family members.” Rather, it is to suggest that what you describe is not actually political speech. It is more like a symptom of a national communication disorder.

‘Nuff said. It’s Friday and quitting time. (Yes, we are workers, and yes, we do occasionally knock off for the week.)

But one final word (I really do not seem to be able to stop, do I? That’s my own communication disorder!): Ignore all mass family e-mails about politics! Mass family e-mails about politics are the worst! If you must respond, pause first, and then suggest, “OK, everybody, barbecue next week at Aunt Kate’s!”