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My family is feuding about politics

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?)


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!”



  1. Yeah great response by Cary. Or may I also suggest, you just dont talk about politics with people you know are the exact opposite or republican nut jobs and bigots. Talking with conservatives about things is like talking with a Christian about life and existence. You come at them with facts and evidence, they cite the bible to you. How can you have a rich, intelligent conversation with someone who cites a work of fiction?

    Conservatives live in a delusion-induced world of their own full with bullshit bootstraps narratives, the american dream, jingoism, apple pie, the bible and guns. I dont really know how you, or anyone, can have a constructive conversation with someone who, in the case of religion, keeps citing the bible and “Christ” like they were real as opposed to works of fictions and in the case of Christ and the messiah, mere figments of our imagination.

    Talking politics and religion with people only ruins your relationship with them. And let me tell you, even if you ask them the things Cary mentioned, i.e. no direct confrontation, they will still not “change their minds” or see your point. They are not gonna support liberal policies because you asked them more than just conceptual questions (not that Obama is very liberal, remember the ACA is a health-care system based on the free market. In other words, the worst outcome that can happen for health care happened with ACA, which is letting the free market, and thus entities that care about profit only, in charge of making health-care decisions for you. That is a fundamentally un-liberal notion. Liberal would be if the free market was taken OUT of making health-care decisions for us. Insurance companies, before and even after ACA, make money by not paying claims. Now the ACA has put a few restrictions on them but they have already founds tons of loopholes to circumvent that. Now you have high deductibles and out of pocket costs which, for someone who is poor, may as well be like no having insurance at all. Some of the plans have 5k or 10k deductibles. How is someone to come up with a 10,000 deductible?).

    At any rate, this is just to illustrate to you that neither Obama nor the ACA are liberal pieces. But THAT WONT MATTER TO THE CONSERVATIVE NUT JOB. And no liberal in their right mind will be convinced by garbage conservative policies, including opposition to same sex marriage, anti choice and anti-agency legislation etc. etc. No conservative is going to convince me that the rights of a fetus supersede the rights of the person carrying them, no matter how polite they are about it. And no conservative can convince me that not taxing the rich will lead to job creation and all that other Reagan trickle-down garbage.

    My point is, you are not going to convince anyone of anything, all this political talk will do is alienate you guys from each other, so i suggest making it a point to not talk about politics anymore.

    I find it hard because what happens on the political sphere does affect us as a society but in cases like that the result will only be shouting matches and hurt feelings an nothing will change. That is why i dont have any conservative friends. I would have nothing in common with them and i dont like people who subscribe to detrimental polices. I also firmly believe that your political views and party lines say a lot about who you are as a person. I mean, if you, much like all of the republican party and its voter base, subscribe to the notion that people arent entitled to food, then i dont want to hang out with you, associate with you, talk to you. YOU BELIEVE PEOPLE AREN’T ENTITLED TO FOOD. The only conversation I will have with you is trying to convince you that no they are, and you will say no they arent citing bootstraps and hard work blah blah blah narratives and I’ll just get frustrated etc etc. Do you see what I am saying? There is no winning with conservatives, only degrees of losing.

    Now I am not saying we should not have a national debate on these issues but you arent going to convince uncle Frank at a holiday party that he is mistaken about Obama. So I suggest you all agree to not talk politics for the sake of civil interactions at family gatherings. And if someone’s political views is too offensive, and i have seen that too where one sibling thinks being gay is a sickness while his brother is gay and so they do not talk. That is ok too. No one is obligate to expose themselves to harm and harmful notions and people out of politeness. There is a line to be drawn and everyone has to determine for themselves what their pain threshold is with respect to shit they can and are willing to put up with without compromising their convictions. Dont associate with homophobes and racists so you can enjoy a party. In that case, maybe just dont go to such a party….

    • Poppy,

      You made some Great points, and I would also include eliminating discussing religion, too. Now we know why many of our parents advised us not to discuss politics or religion with strangers. And, if family members can’t tolerate tolerance, and tolerance to you is like the air we breathe…it is what it is…family or not.

      No matter what side of the opinion you agree with…if you choose to venture into the waters of any group that has no room for OPEN DISCUSSION, about either topic…and you find you are one among many that will use you for target practice, stay away and enjoy something else. If anyone is out to convert you to anything, and you are not the converting type…
      and going to Auntie EM’s barbecue is going to include roasting your beliefs, stay away!

      Cary, I truly admire your skills in advising peace among families…in the most gracious of ways…but if anyone considers you on the outs of the majority beliefs of the families congregating, and you know you are going to be singled out and intentionally be shamed, life is too short. My advice is to seek out members of your family in smaller group gatherings, if the objective of the get together is about Love and Acceptance and enjoying each other’s company.

      Sometimes, we are born into our family, sometimes we meet them on the road of life, and sometimes, if we are lucky, we have a combination of both. If you are feeling any kind of apprehension and anxiety about being with a certain crowd, and absence from these folks will not make their hearts grow fonder for you…yes, it’s painful, but better to avoid those that would verbally abuse anyone for having different views on politics, religion, etc. Some folks can Only be around others whose beliefs match their own.

      I’d rather read Cary’s column, than be grist for someone else’s mill.

  2. This was a great response, Cary, and a useful reminder to skirt around inflammatory comments about one political party or another and focus on the deeper issues. Of course, this is incredible difficult to do and so when all else fails, families can hopefully just hang out and enjoy spending time, despite political differences. Thanks for this response -it resonates years later (and even across the border where it is S. Harper we’re sighing over).

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