When Intimacy Meets Politics

Love across the party line

| November / December 2004

I arrived at a friend's house on the night of the 2003 State of the Union address. We've known each other since we were five years old. My first memory of her is the two of us standing on opposite sides of an easel, drawing, giggling, and telling each other how much we loved each other's laugh. While as adults we've always lived on opposite ends of the country, and often don't talk for months, we manage to see each other about once a year. With the ease of lifelong friends, we pick up the threads of our last conversation.

That's why I was so surprised to discover during George W. Bush's speech that we were firmly planted on opposite ends of the political spectrum. How had we never talked politics? Political affiliation has become, after all, a kind of badge -- not only of community values, but also of individual identity. It felt like my friend and I had been dropped into the middle of a cultural minefield. Even the smallest statement suddenly entailed a risk. The experience felt to me like vertigo.

I didn't handle our initial conversations as gracefully as I could have, especially as we discussed our widely divergent views on the prospect of war in Iraq, homeland security, and the environment. It certainly would have been easier to ignore our differences, or attempt to laugh them off, but after a few days of conversation that went in fits and starts, we made some discoveries. Most significantly, we realized that liberal and conservative stereotypes -- no matter how easily they come out of your mouth -- don't apply so easily to people you love.

On a more recent visit, we spent a beautiful late summer day walking through the community gardens near my house, talking about who and what we love. At the end of the day we took deep breaths and decided to talk politics. I'm embarrassed to say that there were moments when my disagreement with my friend's political opinions, and my defensiveness about my own, made me stop listening closely. That's where we ran into trouble. But if anything can motivate people to find common ground, it's love. My friend and I are in luck, but facing a similar challenge on a wider scale, our country needs help.

Many people have told me recently how difficult they find it to talk about what is most important to them with family members and loved ones of a different political bent. After we're done with the battle of this election season, we're going to have to figure out how to do just that. The first step will be healing the emotions left raw by the election itself, but our need to communicate better goes beyond that. An ability to see things from the other perspective is crucial to confronting the volatile realities of the world and our country's troubling role in it.

In the spirit of acknowledging that both understanding and its opposite begin close to home, we explore in this issue what is right under all of our noses every day: the question of how to get along with and be more intimate with each other. If politics is about how to best live together within this nation, and with other peoples around the globe, perhaps citizens and politicians alike could take inspiration from the basic rules of engagement in our most intimate relationships: Listen closely, show respect, participate willingly in the difficult conversations, remember that neither attacks nor defensiveness do much good when you're aiming for real communication, disagree lovingly, and celebrate each other's strengths and humanity.

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