By: Ashir Rao, Dana Hathaway, and Kate Gruetter
Public Relations Manager, Editorial Editor, and National/World Editor
Political polarization — the divergence of politics away from the center — is at an all time high in America. According to Pew Research Center, voters with unfavorable opinions of the opposing party have doubled since 1994. In addition, 85 percent of American voters feel “largely misunderstood” by voters of the opposing party. Although formerly designed for a fluid spectrum, sharp opinions have elicited a large divide in the two party system between Republicans and Democrats. This sharp split can ruin relationships — even strong familial bonds. According to TIME Magazine, therapists warn against mixing family and politics: “An increasing number of parents say they would be upset if their child married someone from a different political party.” Thanksgiving and other holidays infamously create breeding grounds for contentious political arguments that taint family members’ views of each other. As the holidays approach, students should actively fight political polarization by practicing toleration and civility if they choose to discuss politics in a family setting.
In the context of American politics, political polarization is the gravitation of politically active people towards the extreme sides of the two main political parties: Democrat and Republican. This creates an “us versus them” mindset and an inability to civilly address those on the other side. Los Gatos High School Speech and Debate captain and junior ZB Benitez explained, “People automatically assume if they’re taking one side or another side, it’s [instantly] good or bad…if you don’t agree with them, then you’re [quickly] seen as the evil or the opposing party.” Negative ads targeting political opponents, alongside heightened official debates, depict a country in which politicians rarely respect each other, much less reach any common ground. Furthermore, campaigns made to align with a party’s commonly held beliefs rather than the candidate’s own are increasingly popular. Both candidates and Americans feel pressure to adopt all views of a political affiliation, lest they be labeled as “one of them.”
When beliefs become this polar, division bleeds into aspects of our lives beyond simply political debates or elections. When the holidays occur, families watch as these disagreements enter their dinner table discussions. A conversation can turn into an argument that is unproductive and alienating when individuals fail to acknowledge personal political polarization. Junior and Debate club member, Deniz Kurdi expresses this sentiment, stating that dinner table politics “should be avoided at all costs, really, because you’re not going to gain anything from it. You’re not going to change their mind. They’re not going to change your mind. And nobody has really put effort into their argument either.” This situation should not be the case as both parties should be able to discuss topics with sympathy, understanding, and tolerance. However, he continued, explaining that these discussions grow purely emotional rather than logical, and often lead to separation within a family. Because of this, some classic political issues are simply not worth engaging in. Sophomore English teacher Blaine Bowman echoed a similar message, noting that, “It’s important to stand up for what you believe in and make that known, but also know that you’re not gonna be able to turn a person’s mind…Don’t burn any bridges if you can.” Overall, sometimes it is best to simply avoid addressing politics during the holidays. However, when political topics wheedle their way to the dinner table, there are strategies you can easily implement to avoid escalation.
The first and most important step is to listen. It’s difficult to listen to people you don’t agree with, but oftentimes understanding their points and what they’re saying can help you develop common ground or prevent a situation from escalating. Even if you don’t agree, try to find some sort of compromise. Phrases such as “I agree this is a controversial issue,” or “that’s really interesting,” or even, “you’re right, this is a complicated topic,” can work if you’re attempting to diffuse a situation without necessarily agreeing with a relative. Use open-ended questions if you hope to have a reasonable conversation, ones that can create a peaceful discussion, rather than making a family member feel attacked.
Another strategy is to pivot. Attempt to swing the conversation in another direction, one less fueled by aggression or emotion. Finally, practice acceptance and toleration. Try to tolerate your family’s viewpoints, even if you don’t share perspectives. Engage in these conversations in the hopes they pave the way to progress or understanding.
Sometimes you will be unable to implement these strategies. When discussions grow unsafe, aggressive, or hateful, this indicates that politics are no longer the main focus of the discussion; participants should prioritize leaving or immediately changing the conversation. Even when discussions become radical and emotional, Bowman advised, “Don’t let adults dissuade you from how you feel. Your politics don’t have to change just because you get older.”
In addition, as many social justice issues can filter into politics, avoid sacrificing personal moral beliefs at the expense of a family member’s anger. Whether you’re arguing with uncles or discussing politics with mom, you shouldn’t let your family change your morals or beliefs. Rather, you should be open to civil conversation. Bowman explained that, “You are who you are and let your own heart and morals guide you. Try to remember that family is important, but I find that family is also coincidental and circumstantial, and I’m finding that the family I choose is much stronger.” When these discussions shift to moral issues, always keep in mind that comments that hint at poor character or pose a risk to you go beyond politics, and at that point it is reasonable to leave the conversation. Any hateful views framed as politics is another logical exit point from a conversation or relationship.
The joy of the holidays is approaching! Now that you know about the issues exacerbated by polarization, protect that joy by actively maintaining a productive conversation. Although party lines often lead to an “us” vs “them” mindset on key issues facing the nation, loud arguments are fruitless. While you don’t have to agree with someone you vehemently clash with, it always helps to listen. If you are discussing politics, show respect. If the discussion gets heated, pivot to other, less contentious topics. Your relationship with your family is precious, and we must fight against the divide in America. This holiday season, keep the festivities merry by practicing civility in discussions – for the good of your family and your country.
(Sources: NY Times, Pew Research Center, TIMES, Kellogg Insight)
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