The case for seeing your Trump-voting family this holiday season
Three members of my immediate family voted for Trump.
I generally avoid political discussions with my family because it seems unproductive and makes holidays unpleasant. I left the Thanksgiving table in 2008 when one of my uncles wouldn’t stop making derogatory remarks about then president-elect Obama. Over the years, I’ve learned it’s easier to spend our limited time together in relative harmony, even if that means discussion is relegated to somewhat superficial topics and niceties. As a Michigan native who now calls Washington, D.C. home, this dynamic is heightened in the Midwest as our ethos is one of politeness. While I was vaguely aware that I had family members voting for Trump, I did not discuss it with them prior to the election, partly because it seemed irrelevant in light of the fact that Clinton would likely win, and partly because I knew the conversation would be uncomfortable.
There has been an abundance of online sharing through blogs and social media as people write open letters to their Trump-voting and conservative, Christian family members. While these letters may or may not actually be read by the authors’ families, many people will be gathering with their relatives during the upcoming holiday season. I happened to have a previously-scheduled trip home to Michigan the weekend after the election, and I approached it with anxiety. As someone who was ensconced in my own echo chamber of intellectual and progressive folks, I joined the crowd of those shocked and dismayed by the election results. I struggled to reconcile how the family that raised me could vote against so many of my ideals. I knew I needed to have this uncomfortable conversation with them.
So, three days after the election, we had the talk. My dad, who is a therapist, suggested that we identify the goals of the conversation and what each of us hoped to get out of it prior to actually having the discussion. This was very helpful. I tried really hard to (mostly) listen. As an academic, and as a sociologist in particular, we are trained to be critical thinkers, to identify how structures and institutions shape lived experiences, and often come armed with empirical analysis. These conversations with our family members are not the time for lectures or recitation of facts, however well informed. I learned more about how my parents – who in many ways have relatively liberal stances on social issues – ended up voting the way they did. They expressed dismay at the liberal “moral outrage” directed at those who voted for Trump. I shared the personal and collective pain that had emanated from my social circles as friends and colleagues legitimately fear for their well-being. Learning happened in all sorts of ways: My Dad referenced some of my Tweets; I didn’t even know he was on Twitter. Our conversation was hard. I cried a lot.
But one of my biggest takeaways from this difficult conversation was the “othering” that I think is occurring by those on the left about Trump voters. While I can easily recognize othering and discuss the reasons for homophily – the tendency to spend time and form relationships with those similar to ourselves – from a theoretical perspective, it can be harder to identify it in our personal lives. The newsfeed of my own social media is full of memes, articles, and posts focusing on the White supremacist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, and oppressive ideals that a Trump vote supposedly represents. It’s very easy to quickly lump all Trump voters together, and especially if you are not engaging with actual Trump voters, this is easy to continue propagating. What I heard from my family is that this rhetoric is not doing anything to further the progressive cause; instead it’s contributing to their feeling of alienation from liberal elites and contributing to polarization.
I have a former supervisor who regularly reminded me that social change is only going to happen through relationships. While it’s cathartic to engage in social media activism, and lament all the ways I’m very concerned about the ripple effects of how Trump’s win normalizes oppressive behavior, I’m mostly talking to people who already agree with me. What if I had truly engaged with my family about these topics prior to the election? It may not have changed their vote, but it would have facilitated dialogue in which we each gained more understanding about the many perspectives that exist. My family members and I agree on some things; what if we talked about how to make those ideals a reality?
I know people who have canceled their Thanksgiving and holiday plans because they have had fallings-out with their Trump-voting family members. I respect and empathize with this. At the same time, there’s a lot of power in being in relationship with others. Taking off our “expert” academic hats, getting outside of our intellectual and likeminded echo chambers, and really listening and sharing with people we love who have divergent viewpoints can be illuminating. There’s historical precedence for this; when people began coming out of the closet, it turned a corner for the LGBTQ movement: having a personal relationship with someone LGBTQ made it harder to vote against their interests and support regressive policies. The same holds true as we face this post-Obama era. These conversations can happen in a number of ways, but we need to humanize and be in relationship with those who voted differently than us.