Friends and Politics, How to Co-Exist
Caitlin Quattromani: The election of 2016 felt different. Political conversations with our family and friends uncovered a level of polarization that many of us had not previously experienced. People who we always thought were reasonable and intelligent seemed like strangers. We said to ourselves, “How could you think that? I thought you were smart.”
Lauran Arledge: Caitlin and I met in the summer of 2011, and we bonded around being working moms and trying to keep our very energetic boys busy. And we soon found out we had almost everything in common. From our love of Colorado to our love of sushi, there wasn’t much we didn’t agree on. We also discovered that we share a deep love of this country and feel a responsibility to be politically active. But no one’s perfect —
(Laughter) and I soon found out two disappointing things about Caitlin. First, she hates camping.
CQ: I think camping is the worst.
LA: So there would not be any joint camping trips in our future. The second thing is that she’s politically active all right — as a conservative.
CQ: I may hate camping, but I love politics. I listen to conservative talk radio just about every day, and I’ve volunteered for a few different conservative political campaigns.
LA: And I’d say I’m a little to the left, like all the way to the left.
I’ve always been interested in politics. I was a political science major, and I worked as a community organizer and on a congressional campaign.
CQ: So as Lauran and I were getting to know each other, it was right in the middle of that 2012 presidential campaign, and most of our early political conversations were really just based in jokes and pranks. So as an example, I would change Lauran’s computer screen saver to a picture of Mitt Romney, or she would put an Obama campaign magnet on the back of my car.
LA: Car, not minivan.
CQ: But over time, those conversations grew more serious and really became a core of our friendship. And somewhere along the line, we decided we didn’t want to have any topic be off limits for discussion, even if those topics pushed us way outside of our friendship comfort zone.
LA: And so to most of us, political conversations are a zero-sum game. There’s a winner and there’s a loser. We go for the attack and we spot a weakness in someone’s argument. And here’s the important part: we tend to take every comment or opinion that’s expressed as a personal affront to our own values and beliefs. But what if changed the way we think about these conversations? What if, in these heated moments, we chose dialogue over debate? When we engage in dialogue, we flip the script. We replace our ego and our desire to win with curiosity, empathy and a desire to learn. Instead of coming from a place of judgment, we are genuinely interested in the other person’s experiences, their values and their concerns.
CQ: You make it sound so simple, Lauran. But getting to that place of true dialogue is hard, especially when we’re talking about politics. It is so easy to get emotionally fired up about issues that we’re passionate about, and we can let our ego get in the way of truly hearing the other person’s perspective. And in this crazy political climate we’re in right now, unfortunately, we’re seeing an extreme result of those heated political conversations, to the point where people are willing to walk away from their relationships. In fact, Rasmussen released a poll earlier this year that said 40 percent of people reported that the 2016 election negatively impacted a personal relationship, and the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience tells us that people tend to feel their way to their beliefs rather than using reasoning, and that when reason and emotion collide, it’s emotion that invariably wins. So no wonder it’s hard to talk about these issues.
LA: And look, we’re just two regular friends who happen to think very differently about politics and the role that government should play in our lives. And I know we were all taught not to talk about politics because it’s not polite, but we need to be able to talk about it, because it’s important to us and it’s a part of who we are.
CQ: We have chosen to avoid political debate and instead engage in dialogue in order to maintain what we fondly call our bipartisan friendship.
LA: And this election and all of the craziness that has followed has given us several opportunities to practice this skill.
Let’s start with January and the Women’s March. At this point, you can probably guess which one of us participated.
CQ: Oh, the Women’s March. I was annoyed and irritated that entire day, really because of two things. Number one, the name “Women’s March.” As a conservative woman, the march’s platform of issues didn’t represent me, and that’s OK, but hearing it talked about as this demonstration of sisterhood and solidarity for all women didn’t ring true for me. The other piece was the timing of the event, the fact that it was the day after the presidential inauguration. It felt like we weren’t even giving the new administration to actually do anything, good or bad, before people felt the need to demonstrate against it.
LA: And under normal circumstances, I would agree with Caitlin. I think an administration does deserve the benefit of the doubt. But in this case, I was marching to show my concern that a man with such a poor track record with women and other groups had been elected as president. I had to be part of the collective voice that wanted to send a clear message to the new president that we did not accept or condone his behavior or rhetoric during the election.
CQ: So I’m already feeling kind of aggravated, and then I see this Facebook from Lauran pop up in my social media feed.
Seeing Lauran’s sons at the march and holding signs took it to a new level for me, and not in a good way, because I know these boys, I love these boys, and I didn’t feel they were old enough to understand what the march stood for. I didn’t understand why Lauran would choose to have them participate in that way, and I assumed it wasn’t a choice that the boys made for themselves. But I also know Lauran. You’re an incredible mom who would never exploit your boys in any way, so I had to stop and check myself. I had a decision to make. I could take the easy way out and just choose not to say anything to her, and instead just kind of simmer in my frustration, or I could ask her to learn more about her motivations.
LA: And I shared with Caitlin that we actually started talking about the March weeks before we participated. And my boys were curious as to why the event was being organized, and this led to some very interesting family conversations. We talked about how in this country, we have the right and the privilege to demonstrate against something we don’t agree with, and my husband shared with them why he thought it was so important that men joined the Women’s March. But the most significant reason we marched as a family is that it was a way for us to honor my parents’ legacy. They spent their careers working to defend the rights of some of our most vulnerable citizens, and they passed these values down to me and my brother, and we want to do the same with our sons.
CQ: After talking to Lauran, I really understood not only why she felt it was so important to march, but why she had her boys with her. And frankly, my assumptions were wrong. It was the boys who wanted to march after they talked about the issues as a family.
But what’s most important about this example is to think about the alternative. Had Lauran and I not talked about it, I would have been annoyed with her, and it could have resulted in an undercurrent of disrespect in our friendship. But by asking Lauran questions, it allowed us to use dialogue to get to a place of true understanding. Now, to be clear, our conversation didn’t really change my mind about how I felt about the March, but it absolutely changed my thinking around why she brought her boys with her. And for both of us, that dialogue allowed us to understand each other’s perspective about the Women’s March even though we disagreed.
LA: The second topic that challenged our ability to engage in dialogue was around my need to understand how Caitlin could vote for Trump.
Caitlin is a successful professional woman who is deeply caring and compassionate, and the Caitlin I know would never excuse any man from talking about women the way that Trump did during the campaign. It was hard for me to reconcile these two things in my mind. How could you overlook the things that were said?
CQ: So I’m guessing I may not be the only one here that thought we didn’t have the best choices for the presidential election last year.
The Republican candidate who I did support didn’t make it out of the primary, so when it came time to vote, I had a decision to make. And you’re right, there were some terrible things that came out during the Trump campaign, so much so that I almost decided to just abstain rather than voting for president, something I had never even considered doing before. But ultimately, I did vote for Donald Trump, and for me it was really a vote for party over person, especially recognizing how important that presidential pick is on influencing our judicial branch. But I shared with Lauran it was a decision I really wrestled with, and not one that I made lightly.
LA: And so after our conversation, I was struck by a few things. First, I had fallen victim to my own confirmation bias. Because of my strong feelings about Trump, I had given all Trump voters the same attributes, and none of them forgiving.
(Laughter) But knowing Caitlin, I started to ask questions. What were Trump voters really concerned about? Under all the divisive language, what was really going on? What could we learn about ourselves and our country from this unlikely event? I also learned that we shared a deep disappointment in this election, and that we have growing concerns about our two-party political system.
But the most important thing about this conversation is that it happened at all. Without an open and honest dialogue between the two of us, this election would have been the elephant in the room for the next four years, pun intended.