In 2008 I had an epiphany after listening to two acquaintances tell me why they thought their candidate- Barack Obama or John McCain- should be our next president. At the time, political rancor was boiling. Their stories were personal, capturing experiences they’d had as children that cemented how they would go on to vote as adults.
I defined these as “political shaping” stories and with every election since 2008 believe more strongly that hearing American citizens’ political shaping stories is what we need to mend the political divide we are suffering, to ease the national rancor that is now spewing over the sides. I brought sixteen of these unique stories together in my new book, How People Get Their Politics, which will be released by Motina Books on Sept. 22.
The Pew Research Center found that large shares of the population now feel not only frustrated with and angry at members of the opposing party, but also afraid of them. Fifty-five percent of Democrats said they are fearful of the GOP, while forty-nine percent of Republicans are scared of the Democratic Party. Since 2016, one-third of Americans said they stopped talking to a friend or family member because of politics.
While there have been other times when Americans were deeply divided, there is no other time in at least the past century when we have been so at odds with one another. Older people I talked with confirm this. They each told me how political parties didn’t used to have the stigmas they do now and whether a candidate identified as a Democrat or a Republican didn’t matter as much to voters as a candidate’s personality.
The sixteen political shaping stories included in How People Get Their Politics reflect people from all ages and backgrounds. They are self-described Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. There are progressives, liberals, and conservatives. The oldest person I interviewed was born in 1923 and the youngest was born in 1998. Their stories are unique, just like the hundreds of millions of other Americans whose stories also need to be heard.
The conversations include how cancer, religion, and war shaped people’s politics. A man and a woman each shared their thoughts on what it’s been like being black in America. One man passionately defended his decision not to vaccinate his children. There are powerful immigrant stories from people who were born in Mexico, Poland, and Taiwan. A longtime U.S. State Department employee explained how his view of America was shaped in large part from living outside of it. A World War II veteran and a former child during that war both spoke separately about the silver linings that came from hardship. Two public servants shared their opposite, but equally passionate, views of what would be the best policies to move America forward.
While most political opinions included in my book were formed by the time a person reached young adulthood, some minds were changed later in life. It was also clear that if we were born to other parents, or had been born in another decade, or in a different region of the country or the world, we might actually advocate for the same policies as the neighbor does who we are at odds with now.
Regardless of their beliefs, two patterns emerged from each interview. Everyone agreed that we have grown polarized as a nation because of politics, yet everyone felt just as passionately that their vision for America is the best one.
If political identities are so entrenched, then why do we try so hard to change other people’s opinions? And what makes us think that we can? Despite all the noise, we shake our heads in wonder when the polls, and people’s political identities, remain unchanged.
As children we are told not to discuss politics. But if we’re to break bread with people, why not talk about the things that make a difference in our lives, including healthcare, immigration, and the second amendment.
Our beliefs are subjective, but powerful to the core of who we are. As a society we must listen to one another if we want to move this country forward.
Julie Samrick is a mother and writer. For more information visit juliesamrick.com.