I recall back in 2015, the look of bewilderment on my then 76-year-old grandmother’s face when I told her that I identified as a democratic socialist. She stared at me as if an alien had taken hold of her dear grandson’s soul. Had the United States really spent her entire life fighting the red threat only for her grandson to come out as a commie? Her immediate reaction must have been to seek out a conservative exorcist (think Atlas Shrugged in lieu of a Bible).
Talking Politics with Your Grandmother
Finding common ground through conversation
Political discussions with strangers or loose acquaintances can be stressful—but talking politics with family or close friends can be a minefield. One wrong word and you may find yourself thrust into a shouting match about single-payer healthcare before the Christmas ham has even been carved. Everyone knows that one family member who they consider a loose cannon, well-versed in the art of shoehorning any topic into that-which-shall-not-be-discussed. But not all familial political discussion is so incendiary, something I learned through years of talking with my grandma, the relative I agree with least.
Once the shock wore off, my grandmother and I got to talking.
Much of our conversation surrounded the looming 2016 presidential election, in large part due to my support for Bernie Sanders as a campaign volunteer, which had me sleeping on couches throughout Iowa and Nevada. With Bernie and Donald Trump challenging party standard-bearers, Black Lives Matter forcing a reckoning with American racial politics, and the U.S. and Iran striking their ill-fated nuclear deal, we had plenty to talk about. Fortunately, she is both patient and relatively open-minded, which are qualities that I learned to emulate. Her initial reaction might be to view BLM as disruptive, at best, or to bemoan the weakness of U.S. foreign policy, but she would at least hear me out. We covered a lot of terrain that could have been dangerous for diverging minds, but I haven’t been banished or written out of the will, to the best of my knowledge. I would like to describe why I think we managed, in the hopes of helping other people who are in a similar position.
Grandma was born in 1939 in DeKalb County in Northern Illinois. In 1960, she married my late grandfather—a farm boy from Afton Township—who then persuaded her to build a house in the DeKalb countryside, where she has spent the vast majority of her life. DeKalb’s claim to fame: being home of the inventor of modern barbed wire.
She is by no means a simpleton, but her experience and outlook are understandably provincial. She views Chicago–where I live, and which is no more than two hours from DeKalb—with an equal combination of wonder and horror. Regarding politics, she probably hasn’t voted Democrat since her first election, when she helped send JFK to the White House. She is a devoted watcher of Fox News and she frequently worries that something is off about this current moment, that we have lost our way. Like most older conservatives, she looks back fondly on the Reagan years, which she recalls as a time full of national self-confidence, embodied by the smiling, silver-tongued president.
Over the years, as the political segments of our conversations developed, I noticed how my grandmother would often begin by fretting about what she had seen on the news. She might lament the loss of pride in our country, the lack of respect for the president (this after Trump’s election), or the profligate ways of Congress. Then I would start helping her unpack these topics. I might try to historicize (“people have loved hating on presidents since the get-go”) or offer evidence (“look at this chart of the deficit under GOP control”), but I always tried to take her concerns and ideas seriously. It sounds saccharine, but mutual respect, when possible, is an essential part of the ethics of political discussion. No generative criticisms or understanding happens when things become unhinged. Much of what my grandma related to was the experience of talking about her fears and concerns with a younger person, someone who she cared about and could trust.
I was often more or less successful in getting my point across during these talks. But much of the time persuasion was not my goal. Out of respect and for my own sanity, I was not trying to convert my grandmother through rigorous debate. People easily sniff out a salesperson, especially one selling political ideas, and it puts them on the defensive. Instead, I would try to treat these talks as a chance for playfulness, opportunities to bounce ideas around and maybe even learn something new. It was through such chats that I learned my grandma’s (somewhat ironic) master theory of politics: get all the old people out and things will take care of themselves. This led to a comical situation in which I, the twenty-something lefty, largely agreed with her but had to make caveats, like for a certain white-haired politician who was gunning for the White House. To be sure, it is not always possible to take a detached, light-hearted approach to talking about highly important and personal issues. But it can help to break out of habitual defenses, and even defuse normally tense conversations.
Some of the best discussions with my grandmother occurred when we could find common ground. Progressives have a secret weapon when talking with some right-leaning folks, especially when compared to defender-of-the-status-quo types: we don’t have to act like our present situation is acceptable. A shared sense of grievance is not sufficient for political agreement, but it can be a useful starting point. We shouldn’t shy away from uncomfortable emotions; we just need to find ways to make them constructive and easier to approach. This can take different forms—distrust of elites, disillusionment with the political system, even just a vague sense of being had. I found that I was sometimes able to harness this frustration and direct it in more constructive directions. When my grandmother started talking about her fear of the rise of Chinese power (again, thank you, Sean Hannity), with a little finesse I could turn her attention more on elites’ decision to sell out working Americans over the last half century through offshoring of jobs and their self-interested pursuit of profit. Anyone who has spent time canvassing or having enough of these conversations will know that anger can be malleable.
No matter how much skill or stamina you bring to these conversations, the most useful ability is knowing when to stop the discussion. This is also the hardest thing to do, because political talk has its own gravitational pull—sometimes stepping away can feel impossible. Add in the mix any existing fraught tensions or tarnished histories, and you have all the ingredients for a bubbling brew. Calling it quits can be especially difficult for those with deep political convictions. It can even feel like a personal failing. Some of us will find solace in our conviction that real political change does not come primarily through conversation alone. But regardless of one’s theory of change, we are all up against that most immovable of objects: human stubbornness.
No matter who you talk to or what you talk about, political conversations inevitably carry the weight of their own irony. On the one hand, nothing is more important than honest deliberation about how we ought to live together in society and how power should be arranged. Yet, on the other hand, no conversation topic seems more fraught, or likely to open permanent rifts between people.
I realize there are many, many people who face a greater challenge than conversing with their mild-mannered, reasonable grandmother. During our talks, grandma rarely hit on any topics that cut to the core of my socialist views, which made cool-headed discussion much easier. But there were plenty of times when I disagreed with her, even found her views reprehensible. I had to learn when to explore a topic, when to validate her and smooth out the rough edges of her anger, and when to simply change the subject. Some people might not believe in letting even family off so easily. That is their choice. However, most people want to both stand by what they believe and at the same time not jeopardize important relationships, and I hope this example proves useful to them.
Perhaps more than ever, intimate conversations with those with whom we disagree are important to prevent our politics from going off the rails. Most political speech nowadays is done through the impersonal medium of technology: posts, comments, messages, etc. As all of us are aware, these forms of communication do not always foster level-headedness or empathy (to put it mildly). Instead, they heighten the polarization that has come to characterize our moment.
We desperately need to be reminded that when it comes down to it, politics is about real people and the real bonds between them. Anyone who has done door-to-door canvassing work understands this. While helping the Bernie 2020 campaign, whether in Clinton, Iowa, or Las Vegas, I talked to an array of people about the issues that mattered to them. These conversations weren’t always easy, but most of them were fruitful and ended on some level of mutual understanding. Face-to-face exchanges are thus both a means and an end, a way to build some sense of solidarity. At their best, they help people find common cause towards shared political goals.
But even when agreement feels impossible, we shouldn’t lose sight that we share in common struggles, a realization that is too often lacking in the impersonal mediums of today’s discourse.
Jack lives in Chicago, Illinois, and works in the legal field.