This past Tuesday, I voted for the first time, and in person.
Overall, everything went smoothly, and I was more than ready to cast my vote for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. I received my ballot quickly and headed into the booth where I diligently filled in the bubbles. For me, voting blue in a solidly blue state (Connecticut) was an easy and quick experience that didn’t include much anxiety.
It wasn’t until a later conversation with my 87 year-old grandfather that I realized the polarization in this country often hits closer to home than we’d like to think. I love my grandfather; he is kind, funny, and generous with his time. When my brother and I were younger, he was always willing to look after us. He also used to drive daily all across Connecticut to coach my cousin’s high school football team (despite the fact that they were certifiably terrible at football).
However, he is also a devout Catholic, a bleeding-heart conservative, and a Trump supporter. He solely watches FOX News and has stated that it’s because he doesn’t trust other media channels. In fact, I once went over to his house and turned on CNN, and he quipped that the “C” of CNN probably stands for communist. It was a joke, but I could tell a part of him truly believed CNN was corrupt and untrustworthy. He is set in his ways when it comes to supporting Trump, and I’m reasonably confident that he would not have been willing to vote for another candidate, or change his views, no matter what anyone could have said. On the one hand, I am aware that he is entitled to his own beliefs even if they differ largely from my own. On the other hand, I grapple with the fact that a man who I know has a big heart, and who I love very much, is willing to proudly vote for a candidate who I believe can only cause further irreversible harm to my future.
I often see posts on social media from fellow Wesleyan students that say something along the lines of “If you support Trump, you’re no friend of mine.” I understand where these posts are coming from. If I found out that any of my close friends supported Trump, I too would be appalled at their beliefs. However, what do you do if that person is a family member? The lines suddenly become much less black and white. Should I exile my grandfather and refuse to speak to him even though I know he may not be around for much longer at 87? Regardless of whether people want to admit it or not, most of us know at least one family member, or old friend, that supports the Trump administration. The question becomes, “What should you do about your relationship with them?” I respect everyone’s decisions regarding what they do with their personal relationships since these decisions are messy, difficult, and filled with grey areas. The decision often isn’t as simple as choosing between cutting them out of your life completely or not.
Living inside the Wesleyan bubble, it is easy to forget that such a fiercely polarized world exists outside of the ivory tower. I’ve noticed through my classes and conversations that we tend to assume that everyone’s views at Wesleyan are the same. While that might be largely true since the school is self-selecting in many aspects, we must remember that the wider world is not as clear-cut. If you don’t believe me, just look at the current election results. Next-door neighbors can hold vastly different political views despite attending the same place of prayer, or school. For many people, it’s an oversimplification to state that you’ll decide to cut out any and all friends and family who hold opposing views. If anything, this rigid political polarization and partisan voting is what contributed to Trump’s election.
Unfortunately, I can’t solve the polarization within the country, but I can influence a small circle of people, starting with my grandfather. Upon further contemplation, I realized that I am part of the problem of polarization if I can’t have a civil conversation with my own grandfather about why I don’t support Trump. My unwillingness to have that conversation is due to my preconceived notions that he won’t really listen, or that a conversation won’t have any effect, but it’s mostly because of how difficult it can be to even find a place to start.
However, this thought process is close-minded on my end. I shouldn’t have predetermined his reaction without giving him a chance, and I encourage anyone who feels comfortable to try to have a meaningful conversation with your Trump-supporting family or friends about your differing views. The traditional rule of etiquette is to not bring up politics or religion, but there are ways to keep this conversation civil.
I found three tips that I think will best accomplish this goal. First, ask open-ended questions and listen to their responses. It is crucial to actively listen to people’s points of view instead of just waiting for them to stop talking so you can interject. This step is vital to understanding where someone is coming from and in order to avoid an ineffective shouting match.
Second, if they bring up a fact that you believe is false, question their sources respectfully. This must be done without being condescending and instead come from a place of concern about the validity of all news sources.
Third, people aren’t perfect. I’d like to believe that if you’re having this conversation with a family member, or friend, that they mean well, but sometimes act out of ignorance. Therefore, use the tactic of “calling-in” (privately speaking to them about how their actions, or words, affected you) rather than “calling-out” (publicly denouncing their behavior in a manner meant to cause shame). More often, a personal, heartfelt conversation will have a larger impact on those who are well-intentioned, yet uninformed.
Even if I can’t change my grandfather’s views, I would like to give him something to think about, and hopefully push him to think outside of what he’s been told by FOX News. In fairness, I should also be pushed to look at things through a different lens than the one I’m used to. With the holiday season upon us, we will need to respectfully confront these contentious issues with our loved ones who we don’t always agree with. A Trump supporter may refuse to listen to CNN, but they might lend an ear to their grandson, niece or cousin. If this nation fails, we all have a stake in the game. However, it’s not too late yet. There’s still some hope that we can resolve our differences. But it will require us to swallow our pride and engage in civil debate, starting with our own families.
Zoe Genden can be reached at email@example.com.