A lawyer and her future son-in-law argue furiously about politics on Facebook, each accusing the other of ignoring “the facts.”
A newly married couple gets into an uncomfortably heated argument as they watch the confirmation hearings of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, until one finally leaves the room. “I love you, but you’re wrong,” she says.
A Mexican-American college student argues with her Trump-supporting mother — also Mexican-American — about how she could possibly accept the idea of a border wall.
These, of course, are not isolated stories: Political differences can drive a wedge through even the closest families and friendships. A 2017 Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 13 percent of respondents said the 2016 election had caused them to end a relationship with a friend or relative. Nearly 40 percent said the election had provoked at least one argument with a loved one.
More broadly, Americans say they’re worried that the United States is growing more polarized and that civility — respect, courtesy, kindness — is slipping away in many aspects of their lives. From road rage to Twitter feuds to the rancor at the highest levels of government, polls show that Americans think incivility is at crisis levels.
Recently, NPR has been traveling the country to explore how people are grappling with the idea of civility in polarizing times.
Here are five stories about the shaky line that people walk to keep things civil — or not — in their most intimate relationships.
‘I Love You, But You’re Wrong’
When Patricia “P.” Price met Simone Perry in 2016, she was surprised when Simone told her she was Republican. As P. explains, “Black, lesbian and Republican — it doesn’t go in the same sentence.” They got married a year later, and Simone Perry became Simone Price.
Simone, who initially supported Ted Cruz and voted for Gary Johnson in 2016, says P. is more interested in “how I carry myself and how I treat people than who I support politically.” P., a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton, says Simone is much more engaged in politics than she is and wins 90 percent of their political debates.
But several months ago, a debate flared into a fight that P. was not willing to concede. The confirmation hearings for Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court were on TV, and P. says she was “completely turned off” by his demeanor.
Simone, on the other hand, sympathized with Kavanaugh’s need to defend himself. She remembers asking P., “If someone we love is ever accused of something, are we going to grant them the benefit of the doubt?”
The argument got angry, uncomfortable. Both women say they often use prayer or meditation to calm themselves if they’re fighting, but this political moment called for more immediate action: When P. felt she couldn’t take it anymore, she walked out and went upstairs.
The Fight Stays On Facebook
Christopher Kilpatrick and Cheryl Hume are about as politically different as two people can be. Chris, 38, describes himself as a “far-right kind of guy” who voted for Trump. Cheryl, his 58-year-old future mother-in-law, voted for Hillary Clinton and donates to causes like refugee resettlement and prisoner re-entry programs. They see each other only a few times a year but connect frequently on Facebook, where they clash over everything from Trump’s border wall to the latest conspiracy theory.
Hannah Yoon for NPR
Their back-and-forth can get barbed — they sometimes attack each other for being ignorant — but before things get too nasty, one of them changes the subject. “How’s Kathy doing?” Cheryl might ask.
Kathy is Chris’ fiancée and Cheryl’s foster daughter. Both Chris and Cheryl say it’s their mutual love for Kathy that helps them put their political differences in perspective.
When the family gets together, Chris and Cheryl say, they avoid talking politics, partly to spare Kathy the misery of playing referee, but partly, they say, because they genuinely enjoy each other’s company. Chris calls Cheryl “big hearted,” and Cheryl describes Chris as a “good guy.”
But when they return home from a family gathering, Chris and Cheryl retreat to their respective corners on social media and resume sparring. Happily for them, Kathy doesn’t pay that much attention to Facebook.
The Reluctant Mediator
Lorraine Bank, 67, says she thinks her children were raised right and “instilled with good values.” But somewhere along the way — through school, TV or the workplace — she thinks her two daughters “got brainwashed.” Politically, the sisters lean liberal, while Lorraine is a staunch conservative. She says she and her husband mention Trump often enough so their children “know we think he’s a good president, but we don’t rub it in.”
That’s not always enough for daughter Valerie, 28, who voted for Clinton in 2016. She says she has to steel herself when she visits her parents.
“I do breathing exercises,” she says. “Before I get into a conversation, I give myself a pep talk and say, ‘I’m going to keep calm, I’m not going to engage, and if someone tries to bait me, I’m not going to take the bait.’ “
Sometimes she has a few drinks to calm herself down. If all else fails, she leaves the room.
For the past few years, Valerie has had to deal with an additional family stress: Her older sister, Sarah, stopped talking to their mother after a serious fight. (Sarah declined to participate in this story.)
As their mother, Lorraine, tells it, after a series of political disagreements, she and Sarah got into a “final straw” argument about gay marriage shortly before the 2016 election. At one point, Lorraine referred to gays as “fags,” and although she says she later apologized, Sarah still refuses to speak to her.
“I pray every day that whatever is wrong, she can get over it and she’ll wake up and know we still love her,” Lorraine says.
Now, on the few family occasions where everyone is together, Sarah won’t interact directly with her mother. Valerie plays the reluctant mediator, trying to knit together a conversation between two people who can no longer find the words.
From ‘Oh Crap’ To A Lasting Friendship
In 2016, Michael Beale and Francesco Mazza were assigned to be freshman roommates at High Point University in North Carolina. And before they met, they each formed an instant impression of the other.
Phyllis B. Dooney for NPR
Michael remembers that Francesco was wearing a bright red “Make America Great Again” hat in his Facebook profile photo.
“And I thought to myself, ‘Oh crap, I gotta live with this kid for a year,’ ” Michael says.
Francesco recalls that Michael’s Facebook page had a picture of Bob Marley on it.
“So I’m like, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, he’s probably like some hippie liberal,’ ” Francesco recalls. (Michael actually voted for Libertarian Gary Johnson. And for the record, he doesn’t remember a Bob Marley picture: “It was probably me at a Grateful Dead concert,” he says.).
Despite their respective knee-jerk reactions, both men decided to approach the year with open-mindedness — a trait that helped them avoid arguments and eventually build a friendship that has sustained to this day. Now 21-year-old juniors, the two recently returned from a spring break trip to Florida.
And almost since the day they met, they haven’t been afraid to debate politics.
“Michael will ask how I think Trump is doing,” says Francesco. “If I think he’s doing something stupid, I’ll say so.”
Francesco, the son of a police officer, grew up around guns in Norristown, Pa. Michael was raised in Connecticut near Sandy Hook Elementary School, where a devastating mass shooting made him wonder why anyone would own a gun.
Whenever there’s a shooting in the news, they find themselves going back and forth about gun policy. Like many of their political debates, these conversations can be eye-opening — but rarely, they admit, mind changing.
‘We Go Slowly, Trying Not To Hurt Each Other’
Nancy Richer, a 55-year-old Mexican-American, was born in Texas and spent half of her life in Mexico. Her daughter, Daniela Garduno, 19, was born in Mexico but grew up mostly north of the border. Each woman says she feels a stronger pull to one side of the Mexican-American hyphen: Nancy identifies more with her American side, Daniela with her Mexican side.
And that can cause tension. Daniela is against the border wall, while her mother supports it.
Nancy says she is proud of her older friends who went through the immigration process legally: “They had to wait 18 years. They had to pay. They had to go through all the process,” she says. “Why not the others?”
Daniela says she’s confused that her mother, a Trump supporter, “can be Mexican and at the same time advocate for rights that are very anti-immigrant, anti-Latino.” She says she sometimes regrets that she and her mother aren’t more politically aligned and can’t have the relaxed, head-nodding conversations that some of her school friends have with their parents.
At the same time, both mother and daughter say they try to be respectful of each other’s opinions, which helps keep their political arguments to a gentle roar.
“When I’m having these issues with my mom,” Daniela says, “I’ll distance myself from the political part of it — I separate my mother from the politics.”
Of her daughter, Nancy says, “When I see that she’s responding as if I’m attacking her — instead of her points of view — that’s when I stop. … We go slowly, trying not to hurt each other.”