House Divided

by Jeffrey Rosen | November 15, 2004

In the days before the election, there has been a boomlet of stories about politically mixed marriages. According to The New York Times Sunday Styles section, "In towns big and small across the country, couples and family members on opposite sides of the political fence are struggling to maintain amicable relationships as a highly polarized political season reaches its apex. " My wife and I were pleased to learn that we are part of an amusing social trend--she's a Republican and I'm a Democrat. But, thankfully, our experience throughout the presidential campaign has not vindicated the Times' thesis.When Democratic friends ask me about our mixed marriage, they tend to raise two questions: Do you fight all the time about politics? And, has she made you more conservative? (By contrast, Republican friends ask whether she has succeeded in converting me, which may confirm Democratic conspiracy theories.) But the answer to all three questions is no. We don't talk constantly about politics, but, when we do, our conversations often (although not always) have a moderating effect. This is consistent with studies of group polarization, which suggest that, when politically mixed groups deliberate, they move toward the middle, whereas, when like-minded people deliberate, they become more extreme. Less significant than our partisan differences is the fact that we grew up on different planets: She went to fundamentalist Christian schools in Florida; I'm a private school kid from Manhattan. As a result, she's instinctively suspicious of Kerry's aristocratic hauteur, while I recoil from Bush's Texas swagger. But these are emotional reactions, not political arguments, and they end up concealing far more than they reveal. There are some topics we've stopped discussing: Arguments about tax policy quickly go off the rails, even when she points out that we would pay a higher rate under Kerry's plan than Kerry would. But she has helped me to understand the difference between evangelical and fundamentalist Christians and to see why Bush, an evangelical, sometimes sounds like a therapeutic squish to his socially conservative base, which he has disappointed on issues ranging from stem cells to abortion. Having heard her unexpected and entirely human stories about growing up among Christian fundamentalists, I now understand that religion may be the most important aspect of Bush's private life, but it's hardly a reliable guide to his decisions as president: He follows the polls more closely than scripture. This effort to see Bush in context hasn't made me like his tax policies any better, but it has prevented me from indulging in the over-the-top Bush hatred that my beloved parents and many esteemed friends and colleagues enjoy. Last year, with admirable candor, The New Republic's Jonathan Chait described how he hated everything about Bush--the way he walks, the way he talks, the fact that he reminded him of entitled classmates from high school ("Mad about You," September 29, 2003). Chait is one of the most analytically rigorous and convincing critics of Bush's tax policies--but might not his decision to wallow in his hatred of Bush run the risk of distorting his judgment? Bush hatred is, of course, the mirror image of the Clinton hatred that drove otherwise intelligent people off the deep end during the 1990s. During this election, some of our Republican friends have tried to distinguish between these two forms of political pathology. Clinton hatred, they claim, was a rational response to Clinton's lies and abuse of power, while Bush hatred is an irrational response to who the president is rather than what he does. But this distinction is transparently unconvincing. Republicans hated Clinton for who he was--the way he walked, the way he talked, the fact that he reminded them of entitled classmates from high school--and they impeached him for his private misdeeds, which they unsuccessfully attempted to recast as high crimes. In fact, Clinton, Bush, and Kerry hatred are all reflections of precisely the same phenomenon, which results from the transformation of politics into theater. In The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett argues that, as the old boundaries between public and private began to collapse in the nineteenth century and personality became the measure of trustworthiness, politicians began to relate to citizens in psychological terms. Sennett writes, "The modern charismatic leader destroys any distance between his own sentiments and impulses and those of his audience, and so, focusing his followers on his motivations, deflects them from measuring him in terms of his acts." Television has exponentially increased the personalization of politics, encouraging citizens to indulge the narcissistic conceit that their illusion of emotional connection with a politician is more important than his or her actions. There has been a lively debate during this election about whether or not our politics are becoming more polarized. But, even if substantive disagreements are in fact real, our addiction to emotions and images makes them appear worse by encouraging voters to evaluate politicians in personal terms. This leads people to exaggerate their hatred for any candidate to whom they don't feel personally connected. In a mixed marriage, it's less easy to approach the presidential race as a form of identity politics. My wife doesn't care whether Kerry reminds me of people with whom I went to high school, because she went to a very different high school. And vice versa. Because we can't appeal to shared prejudices, we have to try to persuade one another with less personal arguments. There are limits to how much of anyone's politics are open to persuasion, and, as a result, political arguments are seldom as interesting as arguments about history, culture, manners and mores, music, or what have you. But, after listening to an intelligent person you love try to make a rational case for the other guy, it's harder to worry that the world will end if your guy loses. Still, there's nothing like a counterintuitive wager to soothe political disappointments. Long before the election (actually before September 11), my wife bet that Bush would be a one-termer, and I bet that he'd be reelected. The winner had to buy the loser a nice bottle of champagne. On election night, we toasted bipartisanship.

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