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When Family Politics Change, Every Conversation Can Feel Like a Battle

Changing family politics wasn’t something I ever worried about. I come from a family of dedicated liberals, more concerned with the right to vote, marry who you love and access abortion than to bear arms. But when my brother, a new homeowner, recently mentioned that he’s considering getting a gun for self-protection while living alone in a rural area, I was disturbed. “Why not just get a really good alarm system?” I sniped. We bantered for a few minutes, then I dropped the subject, not wanting to ruin the afternoon. But the conversation continued to bother me—his remark felt like a harbinger of something more ominous than the basic desire to protect himself, and more of a sign that his whole value system was shifting away from the one we’d always shared.

In a political landscape rife with high-stakes issues, razor-thin margins and extreme polarization, it’s no surprise that we care when a loved one’s politics change. According to 2020 research, one in five voters had made a change in partisanship over the previous two years. But when that shift happens among our family members—regardless of which party or what issues they start to identify with—it can be especially destabilizing.

“Everyone is looking for a secure circle right now—people want to stay in their bubble,” says Tania Israel, professor in the Department of Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide: Skills and Strategies for Conversations That Work. “We want to be surrounded by people who believe the same things because of the meaning that those things have for us. If you thought you had a bubble in your family, and suddenly you’re like, ‘Wait, this doesn’t feel safe anymore,’ that [shift is] much more loaded and distressing now.”

The same way we tend to use a broad brush to paint strangers on the other side of the aisle, we may jump to dramatic conclusions about loved ones with changing views. “If someone moves a little bit away from where they started, we imagine that they’re now completely on the other end of the political spectrum,” says Israel. “If your typically liberal brother is thinking of getting a gun, the fear is that the next step must be QAnon. We make a lot of assumptions about people we disagree with—that they’re extreme, emotional, misinformed, uninformed, or even immoral. We take the meaning that an issue has for us, and if someone disagrees, we flip that to assume it means the opposite for them: ‘You must not care about safety, children, the middle class, or whatever it is I care about.’”

Amanda, 35, of Kansas, went from being “very close” with her mom to having a strained, distant relationship due to her mother’s political shift over the last several years. “My mom was a public school educator, healthcare professional, and union member whose views were once more moderate and aligned with scientific fact,” she said. “We used to talk weekly, go for frequent shopping trips, and even worked together.”

Since then, though, her mom has become more “politically radical” and conservative. “She’s less extreme than my father, so we’re still able to do the occasional text conversation or shopping trip, but for the most part, our relationship has disintegrated,” says Amanda. “I’ve tried to have rational conversations with her about vaccine safety, and it didn’t dissolve into a screaming match or anything, but I got nowhere with her and just don’t have the same level of respect for her at this time. However, if one day she starts digesting other media and information sources and breaks the spell she’s under, I could absolutely have a relationship with her again.”

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