On a recent flight, I listened to a very outdated podcast of This American Life, one that detailed relationships that were broken by, wait for it, political affiliation. Ruined friendships, family members who won’t speak to each other, colleagues alienated in the workplace, even – my favorite – a woman denied entrance into a hiking club, all by political differences. The stories were exaggerated forms of experiences we probably all find familiar – being told that we “just don’t understand” the other side’s position on X, or having the conviction in a conversation that your interlocutor must seriously be missing a frontal lobe to believe some of the cant they’re spouting. (I mean, let’s be honest. It’s not just the other side.)
Fine, it’s normal. But the radio program was, I think rightly, lamenting the fact that disagreements over policy could wreak serious havoc on real, committed relationships, with the implicit question of “why? Why should this matter so much?” Why, indeed? Why should politics – the ideology or actions of a distant politician, usually within the Beltway, doing their thing – get in the way of my 15-year-long friendship, or cause such tension with my sister-in-law?
I think that asking that question actually betrays a certain statist—fine, one might say “liberal”—bias. Why, you ask, have we become so deeply entrenched in our red or blue commitments? Why are our differences, once a hallmark of the American spirit, now so insurmountable? Well, duh, if you put the state into every aspect of life, your colleague’s political opinion – and vote – does represent a threat to your own way of life. If the state is going to have its hand not just in roads and defense but in vaccines and phone records and kindergarten curriculum, the stakes of any political disagreement – especially with those you consider allies – are extraordinarily high.
So, dear NPR, if you want to bewailour intractable political fighting, perhaps you’d better reconsider running to Washington every time something needs change. Maybe, in order to have the freedom to disagree, we’re going to need a little bit of freedom to do things on our own.