“There cannot a greater judgment befall a country than a dreadful spirit of division as rends a government into two distinct people, and makes them greater strangers, and more averse to one another, than if they were actually two different nations.”
So wrote English essayist and playwright Joseph Addison in 1711 of the hyper-partisanship that led to the English civil wars of the 17th century. Almost 100 years later, George Washington warned of the dangers of political parties in his 1796 Farewell Address. Despite these cautions, America still struggles with partisan politics, today more than ever.
Political party affiliation has become the measure we most often use to distinguish friend or foe — more defining even than race, religion, or relationship. Politics draw lines between us, creating tribes surrounded by moats of mistrust. As a result, family gatherings have become battlegrounds with each side determined to take no prisoners.
The first step to calm political strife between family and friends is to understand what causes extreme partisanship. Here’s a closer look at why people hold on to their beliefs so fiercely, followed by seven ways you can defuse tensions when the topic of politics crops up at your social gatherings.
The Origins of Hyper-Partisanship
A “partisan” is a member of a group that shares similar interests and goals. Political parties and partisanship have existed since the ancient Greeks and arise when people disagree with a government’s actions (or non-actions). Driven by different visions of the future, partisanship is a natural outcome of democratic government.
Political parties in the United States began as broad umbrellas under which members had similar, though not identical, interests and views on a majority of issues. Tolerating these differences was necessary to build political strength and win elections in the beginning, but in the two decades following WWII, both parties developed conservative and liberal wings. Inter-party battles over platforms were intense, concluding in compromised positions that few liked but the majority could accept. As a result, the final platforms of the two parties often resembled each other and left voters feeling that there wasn’t “a dime’s worst of difference between the two,” as candidate George C. Wallace, who represented the American Independent Party, famously said in the 1968 presidential race.
The splits within the parties also diminished the power of party leaders to force maverick officeholders to hew to the party line. Legislation, the result of cobbling together ad hoc coalitions of officeholders, was rarely extreme and reflected the trade-offs necessary for passage.
However, as each party refined its positions on the issues of the time, leaders began to enforce orthodoxy among their membership. Members who didn’t agree subsequently left their parties, leaving behind smaller cores of impassioned conservatives and liberal zealots.
During the same period, single-issue voters coalesced into blocs with the ability to swing elections in their favor. According to Gallup, one in six registered voters today selects a candidate solely by their position on abortion. One-quarter of Americans vote only for a candidate who shares their opinion on gun control. Attracting these voters, or being able to negate their influence, is essential for election success.
These zealots, or hyper-partisans, in each party provide the energy and funding needed between election cycles. Their ardor and desire to prevail at any cost escalates the conflicts between the parties. At the same time, voter interest surges as the partisan divide sharpens and the contrast between the choices becomes more distinctive.
Hyper-partisanship always hides under the guise of patriotism, with supporters of each party claiming that those on the other side are not real Americans, but traitors. Vicious personal attacks escalate as opponents resort to slurs, hyperbole, and falsehoods to brand candidates of the opposing side. During these periods of excessive emotion and mistrust, governing becomes almost impossible.
Fear Fuels Hyper-Partisanship
Intense political feelings invariably arise during periods of economic stress and social unrest. Fears about the future raise the stakes of political discussion. Stagnant incomes, widening wealth inequality, terrorism, and globalism ratchet up anxieties and anger as voters feel that party elites and monied interests control the levers of power.
The choice of which party to support has become a defensive matter, focused more on keeping the opposing party from power than favoring the candidates of one’s own party. A 2016 Pew poll found that two-thirds of voters choose a political party to avoid the harm that might result if the other party was elected. In other words, people are now more likely to vote against, rather than for, a candidate. Other findings of the poll include:
- Roughly one-third of voters believe that members of the opposing party are unintelligent.
- Republicans tend to see Democrats as lazy and immoral, while Democrats view Republicans as closed-minded.
- Republicans tend to view Democrats as “godless,” while Democrats view Republicans as “gun nuts.”
- One-half of voters on each side say their opponents are dishonest.
CNN called the 2016 presidential election “the most emotionally draining and overwrought campaign in decades” as two of the most polarizing candidates in history faced off in a no-holds-barred, down-in-the-dirt contest. Republican candidate Donald Trump called Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton “Lying Hillary” and claimed her election would lead to the “end of America.” Responding in kind, Clinton claimed that Trump was thin-skinned and inexperienced and that his ideas were “a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.”
Hyper-partisanship and hyperbole go hand-in-hand during periods of stress. Fear is the oldest and most active of man’s emotions. It kicks in whenever a person feels their survival is at risk in an unknown, perilous world. Whenever you have political conflicts with family or friends, remember that each side has taken a position which they believe will save themselves, their families, and their friends from disaster.
Our Brains & Hyper-Partisanship
According to scientists, our brains continuously seek mental shortcuts to save energy and work more efficiently. This tendency underlies the effectiveness of labeling, or branding. We use labels as a method to understand the world around us and to convey information from one person to another. Yet these labels are generally based upon broad stereotypes; being described as a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal rarely communicates the nuances of a person’s political beliefs.
For example, someone may support both pro-life and pro-gun-control policies; does this mean they fit the label “Republican” or “Democrat”? As a consequence of labeling, we know very little of the actual values of the person so described. Nevertheless, labels immediately set people apart and inhibit the possibility of reaching an agreement.
Political hostility between conservatives and liberals might also be due to a difference in brain structure and the way humans process information, according to Seeker. Studies reported in Scientific American found that conservatives are fundamentally more anxious than liberals, more attuned to assessing potential threats, and seek stability and order. In a 2016 Salon interview, psychiatrist Gail Saltz claimed there are measurable differences in people’s brains which might explain the difference in the two groups’ processing of information:
- Conservatives have a larger right amygdala, the brain area that processes emotional information. As a consequence, they are more likely to dislike change, seek stability and loyalty, and be more traditionally religious.
- Liberals have a larger anterior cingulate gyrus, the brain area dealing with receiving and processing new information. They tend to tolerate uncertainty and conflict, enjoy change, and base their decisions on rationality.
Scientists point out that the human brain is “plastic” and capable of changing over time. They also note that there is substantial variation within each category. In other words, even though two people both claim to be conservative or liberal, their positions on the same issues could differ widely. Similarly, although two people identify with different political parties, they might have more in common than they would initially think.
Hyper-Partisanship in the 21st Century
Political parties understand that fanning the fears of the electorate spurs partisanship, enlarges party coffers, and motivates volunteers. The 21st century has been uniquely vulnerable to sponsors of partisan propaganda due to:
- Gerrymandering. State legislatures redraw Congressional district lines each decade. The party in power naturally seeks to establish districts configured to capture a majority of their party’s voters. Many areas are segregated along racial and economic demographics. This, combined with the power of modern technology to identify and locate favorable voters, has produced a large number of strangely configured but uncontested districts in every state. The lack of political competition in gerrymandered districts leads to hardened voter positions and unwillingness to compromise.
- Campaign Lengths. Though not the longest, the American campaign and election cycle ranks near the top of all democratic countries in the world in terms of length. Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy for the 2008 presidential election in January 2007, 654 days before the election. The extended length of elections multiplies the cost of campaigns and wearies voters, who begin to “tune out” and listen only to information that confirms their beliefs.
- Campaign Costs. The cost of presidential elections in the future is expected to reach $8 billion to $10 billion, the funding of which is possible only through the efficacy of the Internet. Barack Obama revolutionized campaign financing by reaching millions of small contributors over the Internet during his presidential candidacies. While individual donors and Political Action Committees (PACs) continue to be significant, online, small-amount donors provide historic levels of cash to campaign managers, who are then able to saturate public airways with their messages.
- Opposition Research. Negative campaigns have been successful since the birth of politics. Modern technology such as electronic documentation and the Internet further enables researchers to expose the most private details in the lives of candidates, as well as their families, friends, and supporters. Campaign managers manipulate and release this information to do the most public harm to their opponents.
- 24/7 News Cycles. The proliferation and balkanization of news providers create a voracious demand for content and user ratings. Potential candidates are hounded around the clock by scores of reporters and photographers eager to pounce on every gaffe, mistake, and unattractive element of their issue positions, their supporters, and their appearance. Social media instantly spreads any mistake around the world.
- Social Media. Websites like Facebook and Twitter attract millions of users, many of whom turn to social media before traditional news sources for their information. Nearly two-thirds (67%) of Americans report getting some or most of their news from social media, according to Pew Research Center. Unfortunately, the high shareability and lack of fact-checking inherent in social media enable the spread of rumors and misinformation at an unprecedented rate. According to a Federal Special Prosecutor’s indictment, agents of Russia used social media from 2014 to 2017 to manipulate public opinion of American policies and presidential candidates.
- Misinformation and Fake News. Eager for market share and revenues, media companies and website sponsors often fail to check the validity of content or the authority of a source before publishing information. This lack of editorial oversight encourages the publication of false information designed solely to breed confusion and create division.
We live in a world where “facts” can be difficult to prove. Data appears and fades in milliseconds, replaced by new information. Purveyors of disinformation know that believability is more important than honesty and dissemination is more critical than documentation, especially if the material confirms pre-established biases. Technology is not the cause of hyper-partisanship, but it expands its effects at lightning speed.
Political Differences & Family Conflict
Intense political opinions can threaten family relationships and friendships. The tensions between parents and children are especially challenging since parents often expect their children to adopt their values and party affiliations.
Early studies seemed to confirm these expectations. In 1961, experiments by psychologist Albert Bandura concluded that children model behavior learned from their parents. A 2005 Gallup poll suggested that 70% of teenagers share the same social and political ideologies as their parents. However, later studies found that parental beliefs have little or no effect on children’s political views as they age into adults. The American Sociological Association found in 2015 that more than half of children rejected their parents’ political parties as they become more politically aware.
This rejection rate is even higher when parents actively seek to imprint their political views on their children. According to a 2013 Cambridge University study, “Children who come from homes where politics is a frequent topic of discussion are more likely to talk about politics once they leave home, exposing them to new viewpoints — which they then adopt with surprising frequency.”
Political subjects often trigger emotional responses, especially if there are other issues in a parties’ relationship. In these situations, rather than viewing a difference in opinion as an opportunity for mutual exploration, the parties interpret divergence as rejection, lack of respect, or an attempt at control. Disagreement degenerates into arguments and even estrangement if not managed properly.
How to Defuse Political Hostility Among Family & Friends
Many psychologists claim that avoiding tough conversations with loved ones often leads to withdrawal and further alienation. A better approach is to learn how to disagree without animosity and recognize the validity of other’s feelings without agreeing with their positions. Implementing the following actions can lower blood pressures, minimize personal attacks, and promote mutual respect.
1. Recognize the Importance of Your Relationships
Humans often go to extraordinary lengths to protect their physical and financial property while ignoring their most valuable asset: family and friends. Close relationships are critical to health and happiness throughout our lives, according to a 2017 study from Michigan State University. As researcher William Chopik notes, “The more support, the more positive interactions [with loved ones], the better. The important thing is having people you can rely on, for the good times as well as the bad.”
Maintaining strong relationships requires accepting differences and flaws in those we love, just as we expect similar tolerance of our quirks from them.
2. Recognize That We All Experience the World Differently
Before demonizing those who disagree with you politically, consider that they are influenced by factors beyond their control — as are you. While humans are physically and psychologically similar, they are not identical. As a consequence, each of us experiences and responds to our environment in a unique manner. Understanding the basis for another person’s opinions is the first step to reconciliation.
3. Have Realistic Expectations for Family Relations
Few people have families like the make-believe families of fiction and TV. Fathers don’t always know best, mothers get frazzled and tired, and children are more often selfish brats than well-behaved angels. And as Pamela Regan, a psychologist at California State University, told Popular Science, “Because conflict is a normal part of relationships, the closer you are and the more you self-disclose, the more you hear things you don’t like.”
As family members grow up, move away, and start new family groups, the relationships between them become more uncertain. They experience new environments and opinions that change the way they see the world. Unfortunately, when they reunite, they often fall into old roles, behaviors, and expectations of others that no longer apply.
But differences don’t have to lead to distance. Accepting our family members for who they are, rather than who we want them to be, will build trust and respect while minimizing conflict.
4. Don’t Fight Battles You Can Avoid or Cannot Win
There will be times when you do not have the patience or energy to tolerate demeaning, aggressive behavior, no matter what your relationship with the offender. At such times, your best approach is to remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible.
As Larry Sabato Jr. of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics asserted in a USA Today interview, “No one is going to change their mind because of an argument at the dinner table.” Psychologists have long recognized that changing another person’s political beliefs is almost impossible because they are uniquely wrapped up in our identities. Neurological studies indicate that we view ideological challenges as personal insults, stimulating our brains to react as though these challenges are an assault on our bodies.
If possible, avoid discussions about politics that might end in arguments and hurt feelings. If a controversial political subject arises, try to redirect the conversation. If you’re unsuccessful, tell the others you’re uncomfortable talking about the matter and ask change the subject. Do not feel that you must justify your feelings. If pressed, ask the questioner, “Why are you so determined to discuss politics?” or “Why are you concerned about getting my agreement?” If all else fails, it’s perfectly acceptable to excuse yourself to avoid further conflict.
5. Avoid Labels & False Assumptions
If you do participate in political discussions, don’t presume that those who disagree with you have questionable motives, lack the intelligence to understand the situation, or underestimate the impact of their positions. In other words, don’t buy into the stereotypes and prejudices promoted by our political parties.
At the same time, recognize that those with whom you disagree are likely branding you with an unfavorable stereotype. To them, you might appear equally stubborn, unfeeling, and unwilling to consider information that conflicts with your conclusions. Mistrust begets mistrust, and anger responds to anger, fraying and even breaking family ties. No one likes to be reduced to a stereotype, and doing so invariably causes friction and misunderstandings.
Everyone develops mental shortcuts to quickly process information and make sense of the world around them. These shortcuts — or “schemas,” in psychological terms — emerge from our experiences and produce stereotypes and prejudices, negative and positive. Be aware of your personal biases and how they might affect your feelings and opinions.
6. Establish Ground Rules for Discussion
Everyone knows someone who views conversation as an opportunity to demonstrate their superiority to their listeners. They dominate speech, interrupt others, and revel in being the center of attention. Many egoists bring up controversial subjects, especially politics, during conversation to spark disagreement and bully others into their positions. Allowing a hyper-partisan to dominate a conversation invariably ends badly.
The purpose of a discussion is to promote information exchange, not to change minds. Rather than challenging someone’s political beliefs, explore the reasons underlying their position. Recognize their emotions and their right to an opinion, even when you disagree. When explaining your views on the issues, do so as objectively as possible without apologizing or justifying your feelings. When someone goads or attempts to belittle you, reject their effort in non-aggressive but clear terms.
7. Examine Your Role in Disagreements
A discussion is a chain of actions and reactions, each link a response to the facial expressions, body language, gestures, and words immediately prior. In other words, our tit invariably becomes their tat, and vice-versa. Once started, the insults and personal attacks resemble a string of cheap firecrackers — lots of noise and explosions, with nothing left but a pile of ashes.
Refuse to light the fuse by accepting statements and people without prejudgment. Ignore provocations and respond non-emotionally to anger while continuing to extend respect to the other person. Some experts suggest lowering your voice and slowing your speech to settle emotions and regain civility.
Never provoke someone intentionally, no matter how upset they might make you. Aggression toward family and friends is inappropriate and only increases conflict. If you unintentionally embarrass or insult someone, apologize and rephrase your comment is less judgmental terms.
Relationship experts recommend that a better approach to provocation is refusing to engage at all and distancing yourself from an attack by “de-personalizing” it. Take a detached view, emotionally removing yourself from the conflict, and observe it as an outsider looking in instead of as a participant. Implementing this strategy will help you maintain composure and perspective.
Despite your best efforts to avoid political conflicts with friends and family members, you’re likely to find yourself from time to time in uncomfortable situations that are unavoidable and inescapable. Some personality types enjoy battle, making a fuss about the most trivial things just to cause conflict, while others argue out of habit. Hyper-partisans, especially when they’re loved ones, are difficult to handle because they genuinely believe their efforts will prevent calamity and catastrophe for the ones they love.
If you’re in a position where retreat is impossible, remember that you alone control your emotions and actions. You have a choice of reactions when confronted by hateful or aggressive speakers. If you choose to respond in kind, the conflict will escalate, perhaps to levels where reconciliation is unimaginable. Remembering the above tips and putting them into practice will help you disagree, respectfully and lovingly, with others.
Do your friends and family members agree politically? Do family gatherings turn into political battles? How do you handle it?