To Depolarize Our Politics, a Tip from My Late Republican Mother and Me
A Democrat’s heart sinks. The Republican response to President-elect Joe Biden’s national security team? Sen. Marco Rubio’s tweet states it for the unchanged — and skewed — Republican view: “Biden’s cabinet picks went to Ivy League schools, have strong resumés, attend all the right conferences & will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline.” The same old categorical “thinking” (harping on elitism, for one), while blind to the reality that President Donald Trump actually accelerated our decline.
No Republican nod to what cheered this Democrat’s heart about Mr. Biden’s national security team: Each echoed the President-elect in announcing “America is back” — not only back in the world, but back to championing human rights, not autocrats; diplomacy, not insults; multilateralism, not trashing allies. Mr. Biden pledges to restore America, its “global leadership and its moral leadership,” doing so with sobriety and humility. But: It seems a no-go, on foreign policy or likely much else, with the Republicans.
Time, then, for a trust-building exercise that my late Republican mother and I discovered — if both parties are up for it. Republicans have no monopoly on recalcitrance.
Like many families whose members find themselves staring at each other across a no-man’s land from opposite political camps — in my family, my parents were Republican, my two brothers and I Democrat — for years and years to “keep the peace” we simply avoided all political discussion. And if it did arise, both sides resorted to partisan talking points so fast and so vehemently that “discussion” soon closed down. Fireworks, no illumination.
Finally, about 15 years ago, after another Thanksgiving at Mom’s house (she was a widow by then), she asked me to stay after everybody else left, to talk. Her beef: Her Thanksgiving had been ruined by all the “Bush-bashing” at table. It had been unusual, not our norm. The Iraq war was dragging on, with climbing death tolls of American troops and Iraqi civilians; in my opinion America had crossed the moral line not only in invading Iraq but engaging in torture; George W. Bush now “owned” the war — all this got aired. Now, when Mom expressed sympathy for Bush’s mother, Barbara, knowing her son had been bashed across the land that day, I shot back, “Think of the mothers of the dead American soldiers!” Finally, in exasperation, Mom said: “Dad and I raised you kids Republican. What happened?” I made a joke and got up to leave.
But when I got home, I began thinking: What did happen? Mom’s question may have been rhetorical, but it also might be a real invitation. It could be interesting to pursue and, certainly, it would be a change from the norm, which norm was….not working. So the next time my husband and I spent an evening with Mom, several weeks later, I broached the subject of “What happened?” “You are serious about this, right, Mom?” I asked. She paused a moment, then said: “Uh-huh.” And we set off — to melt the ice.
No doubt the Great Melt-Off was helped by our custom of playing double solitaire after dinner. Rather than a formal debate setting, which mirrors the old non-starter opposing-camps setting, playing a game while unpacking the dynamite can help, provided the game is not too distracting. It helped that Mom was terrifically competitive and loved to win. I do, too, but that evening I paid more attention to my storytelling than my game.
So while Mom kept racking up wins, I related my political evolution. How, when I was “coming up,” John F. Kennedy was elected president. Mom thought the Kennedys a “snobby bunch” — which was funny, I said, considering that the Kennedys were of the hated Irish immigrant class, newcomers sneered at by old-line Boston. Mom paused to take in that elitist note. Then: “Mom, John Kennedy made public service seem noble, even exciting. You can see what that would mean to a young person coming up, can’t you?” Wonder of wonders, she could. I reinforced my point about generational appeal by recalling my childhood friend Jack, whom she doted on, who signed up for Kennedy’s newly-established Peace Corps.
Laying out my cards for the next game, I moved on to Lyndon Johnson: “Johnson moved America to where, historically and morally, America long needed to go” — enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I asked if she agreed America long needed to go in this direction — of integration, enfranchisement. Mom agreed: “We sure did.” I then related how these two pieces of legislation were key to her daughter (me) in my earlier role as a municipal equal-opportunity officer. I also reminded Mom our whole family was united in opposition to the Vietnam War, Johnson’s nemesis.
Then, Richard Nixon. Mom stopped her game: Was I going to — yet again — bash the president whose re-election campaign she served as county chair, for which service she received a thank-you note from “Dick and Pat”? No, I was not. “My point is, Mom: After the Watergate scandal and Nixon resigned, that is when the people’s trust in government really started to go down. Wouldn’t you agree?” Again, wonder of wonders, after a long pause, when I could see she was rearranging the furniture in her mind, Mom said: “Well, that’s true.” “Well, that’s true”: Agreement! Where little existed before!
In subsequent visits I rearranged my own mind’s furniture about Mom’s Republicanism, as Mom related more about growing up on a farm in Ohio during the Great Depression — before any social safety net was installed. How her father was twice threatened with foreclosure; how people, not government, “did for each other”; how her mother fed hobos “traipsing past” with her homemade cottage cheese and butter sandwiches; how church and faith “got them through.” Republican disdain for welfare was personalized for Mom in her latter years by a neighbor who retired early on disability, yet was often up on his roof, doing repairs; Mom sputtered at his “working the system.” I stopped joking about the neighbor, asked for details instead; she gave them. Several times I told Mom, “I get you better now.” “I get you better now.” More connection, where earlier it had been thin.
Little as these steps seem, they were enough to “solve” our political impasse. And once we solved the political impasse, we could advance to the ultimate realm — the moral. In our present political polarization, both parties, Republican and Democrat, now attribute evil intent to the other side; we now see each other as bad. With Mom and me, that aura of, if not bad, then misguided was once there in our perception of each other. But when we could get into things moral, we found our Holy Grail — common ground. For one, our mutual antipathy for pornography. Liberals tend to be O.K. with porn, but this liberal is emphatically not; Mom “got” me on this point. Which led to an opening-out more generally to America’s decline, which Mom said “breaks my heart.” In these close talks, it felt like we were doing repair work on America’s foundation. It was great.
This is not to say we converted each other; we did not. Mom remained Republican almost to the end (in her last presidential election she voted for Hillary Clinton instead of Donald Trump), while I remain Democrat. But we thawed the ice — depolarized — to such an extent that we could “come around” to the other side on occasion. For example, Mom was “all in” for Occupy Wall Street for calling out greed (“Greed is killing this country”) and, after the massacre of “the little ones” in Newtown, Connecticut, for gun control. And, on occasion, we could poke fun at each other’s political views — me as “liberal fruitcake,” Mom for her “right-wing wacko ideas” — and walk away, intact. (It was my husband actually who floated the latter term with her. In the four terms he served in our state legislature, Mom as a Republican felt she could not “in good conscience” donate to his campaigns — until his last one, when she wrote a check, a small one for 25 bucks.)
Looking back, I see we avoided tripwire terms and labels: Mom never, in seriousness, referred to “liberal fruitcakes,” while my husband and I never, in seriousness, cited her for “right-wing wacko ideas.” And we tended to talk about issues broadly, not partisanly — political issues like integration and America’s racial history, immigration, welfare, war; and cultural issues like elitism, pornography and other vices, honesty and truth, one’s moral code. And it all started with addressing the question, “What happened….?”
Perhaps our beloved nation, now so rigidly and dangerously and (we fervently hope not) tragically polarized, can, citizen by citizen, thaw the ice around each of us — with alienated family members, neighbors, our fellow citizens. Asking each other how we evolved — politically, culturally — and, an equally important courtesy, listening to the response, then responding to the response, etc., etc., can not only complete us personally, but it may also save America. And I haven’t mentioned how exciting, even breathtakingly dramatic, that breaking up the ice can be — when mysteries are solved, motives made visible….
So, the question put before us is: “What happened?” Discuss. And thaw.
For my previous post, “My Late Republican Mother Would Weep at Today’s Trump Republicans,” see here.