Moviegoers 50 years ago were captivated and challenged by a provocative, topical film: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? The storyline was tailor-made for the moment.
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn portrayed conventionally liberal white parents who found their principles put to the test when their daughter brought her betrothed home for the holidays.
The prospective member of the family was every parent’s dream: a doctor, notably handsome, accomplished, and polished. The frisson arises because the ideal son-in-law also happens to be black, portrayed by the incomparable Sidney Poitier.
In the early twenty-first century we might well look back on that conceit as reflecting a benighted past. We also know that misplaced pride, intolerance, and hypocrisy — superbugs among human flaws — have a protean capacity to evolve in new circumstances.
A comparable, contemporary remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner would not be based on racial differences. Nor would it be based on nationality or religious differences or sexual orientation.
Who in 1967 would have guessed that in the faraway future of 2017 partisan differences would occasion its own widespread, weaponized bigotry?
Partisanship is Poisonous
Recent polling data confirms what we’re all experiencing: partisanship trumps ties of family and friendship among a rising number of Americans. Many Democrats and Republicans object to “intermarriage” with those of the other party.
The intensity of such sentiments may be increasing as the percentages of committed partisans declines.
This can make for some tense moments at holiday gatherings.
Independents at the Table
If too many members among the dwindling ranks of the legacy parties cannot bear being with their opposite numbers, those of us who are independent often face the full force of both sides.
In talking with fellow independents, one recognizes recurring challenges in attempting to converse with partisans:
- Black-and-White, All-or-Nothing Categorization. Many partisans substitute categorization for ratiocination. If you were to criticize, for example, the myriad problems with the Affordable Care Act, many Democrats would presume that you are a Republican. If you were to criticize the lamentable run-up to the Iraq War, many Republicans would presume you’re a Democrat.
In the zero-sum world that afflicts partisans, if you’re not with them on one thing, you’re against them on everything. As such, you’re an enemy, or, at the least, aiding and abetting the other side.
- Partisan Profiling. In our historical moment of identity politics, many people will presume they know your views of political issues because of your race, gender, ethnicity, or markers of social class or geography. If you don’t conform to their preconceptions, you’re at odds with their brittle worldview.
- Suppressing Discussion of Contentious Issues. Partisans often attempt to move entire areas of concern outside of debate. They routinely delegitimize or marginalize ideas or the individuals advancing them. Complex issues are distorted as advocates attempt to foreclose argumentation. For example, dismissing alternative views as “racist” or supporting “open borders” is intended to obscure rather than illuminate discussion of immigration policy.
- Tribal Talking Points. Talking points have long been a staple of politicians towing their party line. Now many partisan citizens pick up their tribal talking points, applying them in their personal interactions.
One need not look far to identify assertions gleaned from cable television provocateurs such as Rachel Maddow and Sean Hannity. Others quote from the New York Times or National Review or other partisan organs.
Such tendencies are exacerbated by social media, where groups can become inflamed by selective facts and understanding.
- Mind Reading. Because partisan viewpoints cobble together a set of issue positions and identifiers, many partisans tend to think in entirely predictable ways. They presume that others reach opinions in corresponding ways. Rather than truly listen to what you’re saying, they react to trigger words or opinions that, in their mind, signal an entire series of views they identify with one or the other legacy parties. Some go further. They will put words in your mouth, confident they comprehend and articulate your views more accurately than you might do on your own.
- Demonizing the Opposition. Given the dysfunction of our political system over the past generation, one might expect Democrats and Republicans alike to acknowledge with humility that they have a lot to answer for.
As if! Unable to offer a credible affirmative case for their party, Republicans and Democrats tend to fall back on demonizing the other party. No matter how disappointing their side may be, they see it as the sole bulwark against the imminent depredations to be visited upon us all by the other half of the duopoly.
Holiday Season a Political Battlefield
Partisanship has swamped politics. Politics is washing across everything in our lives and work. The giving season of the winter holidays is no longer a safe space.
It’s not simply a matter of a crazy uncle or aunt at dinner. It’s liable to be that the entire gathering can be brought to blows over table talk about goings on in Washington and the world.
The fundamental problem in talking with partisans is that they don’t listen in any meaningful sense. They merely look for opportunities to regurgitate their mantras.
Independents strike out on our own, politically speaking. Perhaps we should take care to avoid following in the footsteps of our partisan friends and family in our communications, too.
Making a point of listening, with no expectation that agreement or judgment is the outcome. Not presuming to read the minds of others, much less expressing their views as if they were incapable or absent.
Not being imprisoned or comforted by dogma or tribalism. Asking questions rather than rendering declarations. Letting others have the last word, whether or not we’re in accord with their point of view.
Perhaps, most of all, declining to engage in the patronizing categorization and political profiling that renders individuals nothing more than figments of our own imagination and presumption.
Americans have so much more in common than today’s misguided partisans wish us to recognize. One hopes that the holiday spirit might be applied on to one another as valued fellow citizens, rather than as toy soldiers in a make-believe battlefield that distracts us from coming together to change our broken politics.