Political polarization in the family

I have written before about my struggle to come to terms with my parents’ decision to vote for Trump, and I have it relatively easy. My family has tended to avoid politics over the years, and few if any of them appear to be pure Fox News zombies. Many other people — such as this black author who has had major conflict with his Trump-supporting white mother — have had it much worse and have reached the point where they need to break off contact.

I don’t claim to know what’s going on in people’s heads in specific cases, but this trend of family strain related to right-wing indoctrination does seem pretty widespread. As we know, systemic effects have systemic causes, and the biggest systemic cause for the last forty years of American life has been the radical reworking of the economy through the bipartisan consensus known as neoliberalism. It is well known that that consensus has favored capital mobility and concentration in a way that has led to a hollowing out of the economic prospects of vast swathes of the country while benefiting a handful of urban areas, which have become basically the only place to find any real opportunity.

What is less noted is the way that this dynamic tends to tear families apart — and to create braindrain as the urban centers basically poach the most talented and creative members of other communities. In a setting like this, going to college, adopting more liberal values, moving to the city, etc., take up a very fraught status. On the one hand, it’s the only way to get ahead in life, and families are often proud of their children who “get out” and make a life for themselves. On the other hand, that means that the parents who have done the “best job” are often punished with the effective loss of their children — not only through less frequent contact, but through a changed lifestyle, values, and expectations. They did everything they were supposed to, and the reward is that their children hardly visit and look down their nose at them when they do. For how many Fox News viewers, I wonder, is the archetypal smug liberal elitist their own child?

The way they react to this pain and loss often isn’t healthy, but I’m less interested in judging individuals than in pointing out the ways that right-wing media have exploited this grief by pushing it toward anger and resentment. Becoming a Fox News zombie of course only exacerbates the problem, as it becomes increasingly impossible to talk about important national events or, more broadly, about values or ideas. Every episode of conflict only hardens the dynamic, until it becomes very unclear for the children what this relationship is even supposed to be about. I suspect parents know what’s happening, but they can’t help but double down — and what are we in the younger generation really offering them? Should they uproot and move to the city, too? Would the problem be solved if they watched “All In With Chris Hayes” religiously instead of O’Reilly or whatever?

We talk about broad-strokes when assessing the slogan “Make America Great Again,” but what if — alongside the racism and toxic nostalgia — there is a more intimate way people are hearing it: make my children love and respect me again, make my community a place where people don’t automatically want to leave and never come back again, make America a place where getting ahead in life isn’t synonymous with dissociating yourself from me. Right-wing media — and here I am thinking of Trump fundamentally as a media phenomenon, which is how our parents experience him — has exploited this situation in a despicable and probably unfixable way, but they didn’t create the underlying dynamic. In other words, ultimately Fox News isn’t what’s tearing families apart, but it’s profiting from the fact that they’re already being torn apart by the geographic concentration of wealth and opportunity.

6 thoughts on “Political polarization in the family

  1. Good post, sharp observations, and speaks directly to my experience: I went to NYC from the small-town South for graduate studies, and stayed for 17 years. My Dad killed himself in Nov (not long after the election results – but no direct relation or causality here), and I’m back down South living with/near my Mom to help her out, physically and emotionally…but also to finally finish my diss. I’m applying to my first f/t tenure track position now, gonna stay down here (vicinity) for the rest of her life. Local universities are of course my only good job/career prospects in the region…it’s daunting…it’s very hard for many people to make a living out in the country; I don’t know how they survive, sometimes…My Dad could never understand why I went to NYC (it’s expensive, too diverse etc…), and my Mom just missed me. It was a big wedge in our relationship (they floated me thru college but no more help for grad, since they fundamentally disagreed with my decisions of geography and field of study). If he would have stayed around a bit longer, I now feel well-equipped on how to successfully/convincingly relate to him (and others) the reasons people go to places like NYC. My Dad was not a Trump supporter – hated his personality/presentation, but actually agreed with a good bit of the racist/nativist stuff (the wall!!). As a thinking person, he could not reconcile himself to the utter crassness of Trump and much of the base. He respected Bernie, but thought it too unrealistic. He had that crazy hyperbolic hatred of Hillary that we know so well…in many cases, it is a quite visceral sexism, not much more.

  2. Great post. Thanks. This makes me wonder how the experience of long, alienating commutes (with no available public transit) affects the demographics of talk radio listeners and their opinions of the liberal state.

  3. Fantastic post. That and bh’s comment make me think about the destruction of public space in a lot of these hollowed-out communities. People have spent most of their lives watching their communities fail, and the only times they hear it discussed are at church or on Fox News.

  4. “They saw each other only once more and were never reconciled. A few years before his death in 1790, Benjamin wrote to William:

    “Nothing has ever hurt me so much and affected me with such keen Sensations as to find myself deserted in my old Age by my only Son, and not only deserted, but to find him taking up Arms against me, in a Cause wherein my good Fame, Fortune, and Life were all at stake.”

    It hardly occurred to Benjamin that William might have held his own integrity in not being a traitor as something more valuable than his father’s wealth and reputation. Benjamin’s will mentions his son only to disinherit him, “leaving him no more of an Estate he endeavored to deprive me of.”


    Mutually assured indoctrination.

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