The most divisive and toxic election in history may be permanently redistricting the map of our personal lives.
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It’s long been an unwritten rule to resist discussing politics among friends. And never has that been truer than with this presidential election, from the heated Democratic primaries to post-convention, with two of the most polarizing candidates in recent history who arguably have incited vitriol among some of their constituencies, acted out across news channels, social media, and our personal lives, too. The animosity is so robust not only across the aisle, but within parties, that several recent polls have found this tension is reshaping relationships, and pulling people apart in record highs.
But it also has people forging deeper bonds.
“I’ve been polling elections back to the mid-1990s, and I can’t really find a comparison point in terms of individual feelings. People feel emotion about their opinions, but it’s off the charts this time,” Chris Borick, director of Muhlenberg College’s Institute of Public Opinion tells DAME. His institute recently conducted a poll of 486 likely voters in the sometimes swing state of Pennsylvania, where the Trump campaign push is running hot and heavy as the state leans toward Clinton in current polls. One in 10 people reported that they’d stopped following a friend on social media due to different political views this season, and 4 in 10 reported that they simply won’t talk about politics for fear of contention.
“People said they’re overwhelmingly more concerned about this election in comparison with others,” reports Borick. “I think the candidates certainly lend themselves to more vitriolic reactions of the electorate.”
He feels that Hillary Clinton, a fixture of American politics for nearly 30 years, suffers “from deep partisan attitudes that have built up over time,” while Donald Trump has managed to push all boundaries of decorum in a very short period of time. “It’s hard to find a comparative figure in contemporary American politics that is as divisive, prone to hyperbole, and as bombastic as Trump is,” he adds.
Another recent poll of 802 registered voters, conducted by Monmouth University found that 7 percent of people had gone so far as to end a friendship over differences related to the election, skewing more toward Clinton followers at 9 percent, with 6 percent of Trump voters, and 3 percent of those voting “other” having dumped friends.
Shelli Chosak, Ph.D, a California psychotherapist thinks that some of the current tensions stem from a theory called “moral politics” posited by George Lakoff, a professor at University of California, Berkeley, that those with a conservative mentality feel safer with a strong authoritarian figure, while those with a liberal mentality want a leader who gives them a voice, like a nurturing parent. And in that regard, she says, conservatives have long figured out how to pander to people’s emotions, namely fear, while progressives try to cater to people’s sense of logic. She feels that people are testier than usual because they aren’t getting either of those archetypal needs met with the two candidates because Trump’s authoritarianism is too heavy-handed, and Clinton doesn’t inspire nurturing or trust. It also would account, she says, for people’s immediate love of Bernie Sanders, whom she says “came across as really heartfelt and genuine.”
Yet Sanders supporters were a significant source of divisiveness in this campaign. During the primaries, tempers flared within Democrats who found themselves ideologically at odds with each other, split across a generational divide as Millennials turned out in droves for Bernie Sanders.
“I had quite a few negative interactions with friends during the primary season,” reports Stephanie, a Gen-X single mother of two in Portland, Oregon. She says she received as much attack from Sanders supporters as from those favoring GOP or third-party candidates. “The interparty strife in the Democratic Party was ridiculous and time-wasting. It distressed me to see people who needed to be working together fighting about things that were taking away from the larger goals.”
Another strong Clinton supporter, author Ellen Meister of New York, was deeply concerned about attacks on Clinton from within the party. “My position was that it was an extremely dangerous thing to do,” she says. On a few occasions, when Bernie-supporting friends attacked Hillary on Facebook, she defended Clinton, stressing that “Democrats should be supporting their candidate, but should NOT be attacking other Democrats.” Alas, no matter how gentle her words, “it drove some people into a fury, and I lost friends over it. One friend—someone I have known for years both online and in real life—even sent me an angry private message filled with deeply personal and unfair attacks on my character. I was in utter shock.”
She and Stephanie both temporarily fled into newly arisen, private pro-Clinton Facebook groups where they could openly discuss politics without risk of attack. In fact, these private groups as a place of refuge became such a big deal, the New York Times wrote about them in June after Clinton clinched the Democratic nomination.
“There was so much bad feeling and negativity that I had to disengage entirely from certain people because it was too upsetting and causing me so much stress,” Stephanie added.
Stress generated by political dissent doesn’t just get turned off along with the computer at the end of each day, but enacts fairly dramatic changes within our bodies. Symptoms of stress can feel an awful lot like a panic attack: racing heart, sweating, blood vessels dilating and bringing blood to the face. In a Harvard University Health blog titled, “Understanding the Stress Response,” its author writes, “Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that prolonged stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction.” It also activates the fight-or-flight response. So while a little heated exchange over politics on Facebook may seem benign, its actually wreaking havoc on your body in ways that might influence the choices you make. Rather than feel that stress again, a person may choose to cut off contact with a person who incites that response.
“There’s this sense of shame in who you’re voting for, which I’ve not seen before. In both sides there are fears of being attacked by others,” Rachel Annunziato, an associate professor of psychology at Fordham University in New York, tells DAME. She reports seeing more stress among her students in this election season. She theorizes that people see Presidential candidates as “extensions of ourselves” and thus become more sensitive. “They think, ‘Does it mean I’m a terrible person, or that others will think I am, if I vote one way or the other?’”
Abetted by social media, where people can toss verbal assaults like a flaming bag of poop on a doorstep, tempers are easily stoked, and “something is lost in the format,” says Chosak. “You can’t see people’s body language online. Nonverbal behavior is very powerful.” Indeed, Clinton has long been scrutinized for her every movement and facial expression, and pundits are still dissecting Trump’s lurking posture behind Clinton at the second presidential debate.
However, political stress isn’t all negative. Tense times have the power to draw people together in surprising ways, too.
Winston C. of Maine describes himself as a “liberal atheist” whose best friend Brent is a conservative Christian. They often don’t share the same political values, but in this election they had one thing in common: “We agreed we can’t let a racist bigot with terrible ideas and business sense, or a flip-flopping dishonest establishmentarian, become president.” They both opted to vote for a third-party candidate, “which would cancel each other out anyway.”
Winston is aware that a friendship of such opposites is rare and often unlikely, but he says they do have “similar goals, with very different ways of getting there.” The secret to their successful friendship and discourse is a strong sense of humor. “We joke a lot about our own positions so that when something serious does come up the heat’s off,” he says. More to the point, they both “approach things from an evidence based perspective and intellectual honesty.” Processing things in a similar way, he finds, is more important for a successful relationship than “base beliefs or biases you may start with.”
Stephanie of Portland also found “a great camaraderie and the comfort of like-minded people supporting one another” in those private pro-Hillary Facebook groups, particularly during the nomination process, when even people in her own Democratic party were on the attack after Clinton. “We were able to discuss things without being attacked and encourage one another to be strong in our convictions,” she says. This was important to her in a time where she felt “the sexism and misogyny throughout the election, from the nomination process to the present time has been devastating to me.”
The only area of consensus that all people, across all parties in this contentious election seem to have, says Borick, is a desire for it all to end. “People are tired. They want a world without an election for a while.”
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