When Politics Runs Thicker Than Blood: The Effect of Political Polarization on American Families

By Samantha O’Connell

“Never discuss politics or religion in polite company,” the old adage goes. When gathered around the dinner table together, American families are advised to steer clear of such controversial topics in the interest of keeping the peace. What is left unsaid can’t hurt us, it seems. Just one problem: the increasing polarization of American politics and the consequent drawing of partisan lines on what feels like every societal issue make this maxim feel like a useless relic of the past. 

After all, 2020 might be one of our country’s most divided and stressful years to date. Considering that the news cycle is constantly dominated by messy debates over the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and November’s impending election, what else is even left to talk about “in polite company?” Avoiding these massive topics feels more like denial than common courtesy by now. But as political rhetoric continues to promote an “us versus them” mentality of extreme animosity between the right and left, family members on different sides of the aisle are seeing their loved ones painted as their ideological enemies. 

Confronted with the challenge of whether to prioritize the strength of their family bonds or the consistency of their political convictions, Americans seem more comfortable than ever about choosing party over blood. 

The past few months, we’ve seen very public examples of partisan and familial allegiances clashing. Kellyann Conway’s 15-year-old daughter announced that she would be seeking emancipation. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter, Chiara, was arrested alongside other “Black Lives Matter” protestors for unlawful assembly. Republican candidate Robert Regan’s daughter tweeted, “if you’re in michigan and 18+ pls for the love of god do not vote for my dad for state rep.” This pattern of increasing strife within politically divided families, however, extends beyond politicians and their children to American families as a whole.

About half of Americans have increased their social media usage due to the pandemic, but for all the long-distance connections, there have also been plenty of political arguments gone wrong. According to a recent poll regarding online COVID-19 disagreements, 21% of surveyed Facebook users had been in a fight with friends or family over it, 20% had actually unfriended a friend because of it, and 15% had even unfriended a family member—all this on a platform that gives you the less severe option of muting an individual instead. 

Much like Facebook, Thanksgiving dinner has long been infamous for its political showdowns, but researchers have seen tangible evidence of politics’ recent harm on this ultimate family festivity. A 2018 study found that, following the 2016 presidential election, Americans spent 30 to 50 minutes less at the dinner celebration if it was hosted in a politically-opposite area. In summary, “4 million hours of cross-partisan Thanksgiving dinner discourse were lost in 2016 owing to partisan effects.” 

One can only imagine what nightmare might await us on November 26, 2020 as families try to navigate the minefield that is this year’s political scene. 

Warnings about the dangers of polarization in our nation are nothing new, but the fracturing of families over it shows this ever-worsening division taken to the utmost extreme. If friendship and family ties aren’t enough to encourage political empathy, what else can stand a chance? In an undoubtedly historic year, the importance of family and our tolerance for divisive rhetoric are yet two more American values that now hang in the balance.

 

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