Lisa and Dennis

The Story Behind Why I Cross Party Lines

Warning: This is a long post. It's an excerpt from my memoir "No One Was Listening." I'm sharing it here as an example of what I consider to be the real power of CPL - the power to save precious relationships with family and friends.

It was October, 2008, and I’d flown into Memphis after a business trip to Mobile. All the airlines had recently cut back on “frills” like free checked bags, free snacks, and comfortable seats. Even water was considered a frill because the FAA hadn’t yet declared charging for life-support to be cruel and unusual punishment. It was also day four of the global financial crisis and my retirement account was shrinking before my eyes.

I had tacked this Tennessee stop onto the end of the business trip because I hadn’t seen my cousin Dennis or his father, Uncle Tim, in fourteen years. I was looking forward to family time after the week of hotels and meetings with the team of technical writers I’d been assigned to lead. Uncle Tim was inching toward ninety, and since my mother’s death the previous year, I’d committed to never missing an opportunity to spend time with the people I loved.

Growing up in the 60s, I’d been closer to Dennis than to any of my other cousins. We lived 400 miles apart, me in Northern California, he and his family in Pomona, outside of L.A. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of our almost-annual trips to visit Aunt Ellen, Uncle Tim, Timmy, and Dennis: adventuring down the street to the local dairy farm to see their two-headed cow; standing in line at Disneyland for the Teacups; or (my favorite) squirming toward each other after the floor of Pacific Ocean Park’s Whirlpool ride had fallen away and centrifugal force had glued us to the ride’s vertical wall.

By 2008, Dennis had lost his mother to a car crash and his brother Timmy to AIDS. My own mother and grandmother had passed, and his father, my Uncle Tim, was holding on, but just barely. My visit with Uncle Tim was bittersweet. The once imposing man was now wheelchair-bound. He still told the old war stories and tales about the gangs at the California Youth Authority where he had worked for years, but when he looked up at me, he called me by my mother’s name.

Sitting in the kitchen with Dennis was the highlight of the trip. We tasted his homemade wine and caught up on our family goings-on (my partner Ed, siblings, and four kids, and Dennis and Carol’s many dogs, three of which lay at our feet,) and at some point our talk slipped into politics.

I don’t remember ever talking politics with Dennis before this trip. His initial remarks about Barack Obama shocked me. Dennis was convinced Obama had been born outside the U.S. and was most likely a Muslim. He said Obama was a liar who had pulled strings and bullied his opponents to get where he was today.

“Dennis, you can’t believe that!” I said.

“Why not? It’s true.”

“Don’t you see? FOX News is filling your head with lies.” Even then, people in very liberal Portland were saying FOX News was the mouthpiece of the far right, more dedicated to blaming and inflaming than to reporting the news.

“Lies?” he replied. “Look it up. It’s all there. Mainstream media just isn’t reporting it.”

“Mainstream media?” I’d never heard the term before. “What do you mean by that?”

“Mainstream. Where the average Joe goes to get the news. Like CNN and MSNBC and PBS.”

“And you’re suggesting there’s a problem with mainstream media?” I asked. Those were the places I went for the news. Well, not MSNBC, and rarely CNN. I mostly listened to the news on Oregon Public Radio, the local NPR/PBS affiliate.

“I’m not suggesting anything. It’s a well-known fact. Mainstream media isn’t news. It’s the mouthpiece of liberals, masquerading as journalism.” He raised his eyebrows and grinned.

“PBS? You think PBS isn’t journalism?” I was incredulous “PBS is about the best journalism you’ll find. It’s bipartisan. And it’s funded by government grants and its viewers, not Big Business.”

“Liberal viewers.” Dennis assured me. “You’re not going to hear the truth about Obama on PBS. And they don’t report real stories, like the one about the small business owner outside L.A. that lost his shirt because a Mexican opened up shop nearby and undercut him by hiring only illegals.”

“Illegals? You mean undocumented immigrants.”

“Illegals. ‘Undocumented immigrants’ is the liberal’s way of denying the truth. These folks broke the law, didn’t they? They certainly didn’t come into the country legally.”

Technically, he was right. But the term “illegal” sounded derogatory and dehumanizing. Not a word I would use to describe people. “Hold on,” I said. “Do you have something against Hispanics?”

“Not Hispanics. No. The legal ones are fine. The ones that came here legally and are paying their taxes and contributing to society. It’s the illegals I have a problem with. Did you know California’sdeficit is over $9 billion? A lot of that is because of all the illegals that come here, take work away from our citizens, and don’t pay taxes.”

“A lot of that deficit,” I responded, “is because of all the loopholes that let corporations and the rich get away without paying any taxes.” The truth was, I no longer lived in California and had no clue why their budget was in such bad shape. But I was getting sucked into the game, falling down the rabbit hole.

He ignored my remark and went on. “Not only are they not paying taxes, they’re sending their kids to school and getting welfare and costing us billions.” He spoke in a matter-of-fact way that shook the foundations of my reality.

That’s when I realized that I had arrived at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. Illegal immigrants can’t get welfare, but clearly, facts were irrelevant in this debate. I must have been going a bit insane myself. The next thing out of my mouth was equally irrelevant. “And you think McCain and Palin are going to fix that?”

“You can bet they’ll crack down on illegals entering the country.”

“Obama’s the one who’s for immigration reform, not McCain.”

“McCain is all about enforcing the law,” Dennis assured me.

“What’s Palin all about? Keeping all the Russians out of Alaska?” I really didn’t like Sarah Palin or her “drill, baby, drill!” slogan. I considered her a ploy to get the Republican women’s vote.

“Now, don’t go picking on Palin,” Dennis said. “Mainstream media isn’t giving her a chance. They take everything she says out of context. She’s the governor of our largest state, for goodness sake! You think those people would elect an idiot?”

“It sure looks like they did!”

Poor Carol, Dennis’s wife, crept off to the other room, away from the ruckus. During a quick bathroom break, I apologized about disrupting her peaceful home.

“I just hate for you to come all this way and then have to put up with Dennis’s ranting and raving,” she said.

“No, really,” I said. “I’m good. We’re having fun.”

“You call that fun?” she asked.

Actually, I was having fun. Our political conversation was making me dizzy and just as disoriented as I had felt when we’d ridden the Teacup ride at Disneyland as kids. Only today, I didn’t have to squeeze my comments into that half-second as Dennis’s teacup whizzed by.

If anyone had predicted I’d spend my time in Tennessee arguing politics with my conservative cousin and enjoying it, I’d have told them they were crazy. Still, it was the fall of 2008, I was at the mercy of the airlines and the stock market, and I needed to vent my frustration. Dennis gave me that opportunity. Whatever I said, he’d just grin and respond in kind. It was safe to disagree because we knew we weren’t endangering our relationship. He wasn’t trying to convince me to change sides, and I wasn’t trying to convince him. We were getting a chance to be heard.

I’ve always been the “good girl” and found breaking the (very reasonable) taboo against talking religion or politics exhilarating. Not only did I have a real, live conservative pushing back against Obama and immigration reform, I had my own chance to share my utter dismay at McCain’s running mate.

The real source of the fun, though, wasn’t talking politics. It was who I was talking politics with. This was Dennis, who punctuates much of what he says with a room-brightening smile and an almost self-effacing laugh at the craziness of politics and the fallibility of humankind. This was my favorite cousin, the storyteller, with a nearly photographic memory and the precision (and surprise factor) of basketball great Stephen Curry when it came to throwing names and dates and figures at me. Around Dennis, I always feel I am in the company of a master, and it felt good—really good—to listen to him and have him listen to me. (Even knowing he was sure to have a ready counter for anything I said.)

It was also a gift to step out of my liberal echo chamber, put a human face on the conservative world view, and hear his take on politics today.

Fast forward to 2016. It was hard to believe we’d let eight years go by. Dennis had called in 2012 to tell me of Uncle Tim’s death, and we’d almost gotten together in January of 2015 when my Aunt Wanda had taken sick. We scheduled overlapping visits with her in her hometown of New Orleans, but the cancer progressed faster than anyone one could have imagined. She’d died before we could get there. Dennis and I were finally getting together to honor her passing.

Dennis picked me up at the airport, and right off the bat I saw a billboard urging me to “Vote for Change: Vote Conservative.” I did a double take. Wasn’t change our ticket?

You know how you can know something intellectually but not really know it? That was me when it came to Middle America. I’d lived so long on the “Left Coast,” as Dennis called it, that I hadn’t fully internalized the fact that there were entire parts of the US where conservatives outnumbered liberals. I hadn’t connected the dots back in 2008 because I’d had blinders on. During the business part of that Mobile trip, I’d spent every waking moment either working or with my eyes glued to stock market coverage. In Tennessee, all I’d focused on was Dennis and Uncle Tim. Now I was out and about in a red state, feeling like an alien.

I could chalk up many of the new experiences to being in the South and the fact that New Orleans is…unique. Still, a lot of the differences were most likely due to Louisiana being conservative. I was surrounded by flags and unabashed support for our troops. People called me ma’am. In Portland, no one calls me ma’am.

That first evening was all about reconnecting. Over dinner I got the full scoop on Dennis’s new solar panels and showed him pictures of my two new grandchildren. Every so often one of us would pause and smile and say, “It’s so good to see you.”

When I told him things between Ed and me hadn’t been going so well lately, he responded with, “You know, I’m always here for you. And I hear I’m a pretty good listener.”

I smiled at that. He was definitely a good listener, as long as we weren’t talking politics. “Thanks,” I said. “I may take you up on that offer. I’m just not sure there’s anything you can do.”

Dennis and I had set aside two days to explore New Orleans and the surrounding areas before meeting up with the cousins at the end of the week. I had been looking forward to seeing him. I was even looking forward to talking politics with him. In my heart of hearts, I probably wanted to discover he’d seen the light and now supported all my cherished causes. Short of that, I hoped he’d shed some light on how anyone could be against gun control after Sandy Hook and the San Bernardino terror attack.

No such luck.

After the “how did you sleep?” and “so what do you want to do today?” over breakfast, we climbed into Dennis’s van, headed downtown, and dove into one political issue after another, never staying on any topic for more than five minutes. There was a cascade effect: gun control led to second amendment rights, which led to first amendment rights, which led to immigration. We lobbed facts at each other like tennis players at Wimbledon. We weren’t trying to be vicious, but we were trying to deflect each other’s balls with our own “truth.”

If an onlooker were to judge based on sheer number of facts quoted, Dennis would have been the undeniable winner. I’m not good at recalling facts, especially in the heat of the moment. I also tend not to be as well-informed as he is because I don’t enjoy watching or listening to the news.

However, if we were to declare a winner based on how successful each person’s truth was at showing the other “the light,” there would have been no winner. The “facts” we were lobbing at each other ran the gamut from accounts of events, to statistics, to strongly held opinions. Both of us were able to discount, at least in our own minds, the other’s opinions, question the statistics, and challenge the objectivity of their accounts.

At Café DuMonde on Decatur St. we talked same-sex marriage. “I’m all for letting people do whatever they please in the privacy of their homes,” Dennis said. “But government has no right to dictate how I live my life.”

“I agree. What do you think gay rights legislation is all about?”

“I think it’s just another excuse to erode our personal freedoms and give big government more control over our lives.” Dennis ran his fingers through is hair as he said this.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“You’re from Oregon,” he said. “You should know about those poor bakery owners who’ve practically been drawn and quartered because they chose not to bake a cake for a gay wedding. That’s wrong. Just wrong. And it makes me sick.”

“You think the bakery owners have it bad? That lesbian couple has been getting death threats and harassing phone calls ever since the bakery owner published their names and addresses on Facebook. They barely have a life now. All because conservatives think they have a right to refuse service to people based on their race, religion, or sexual orientation.”

“It’s their store,” Dennis said. “The minute those people walked through the door they were on private property.”

“It’s a business. It’s open to the public. And that kind of discrimination is against the law.”

During the ride on the Canal Street ferry across to Algiers Point we made the leap from gay marriage to immigration. Before I knew it, Dennis was telling me that “if everyone who crossed the border illegally was wearing a T-shirt that said, ‘I vote Republican,’ the Democrats would be cracking down on immigration so hard….”

“I don’t believe that.”

“It’s a known fact that most immigrants vote Democratic. They want the free hand-outs,” he insisted. “That’s why the Democrats are distributing pamphlets south of the border.”

“What pamphlets?”

“Pamphlets telling people to come across the borders illegally. Promising them free food and welfare.”

“I’m not buying that,” I said. “No one is distributing pamphlets like that.”

“It’s a fact.”

“I’d like to see your sources on that one,” I said.

We got a reprieve from politics along the Jazz Walk of Fame, where we were distracted by history and personalities behind a music we both loved. The lull lasted through the glasses of iced tea we sipped at a local bar and the ride back across the Mississippi. After a brief stop at the French Market, though, we started up again.

Something I heard a lot of this time, that I didn’t remember from before, was “You liberals.” Dennis claimed he was careful to say “the left” and “liberals,” not “You liberals” and I suspected he was right. But I heard the “you.” My mind probably filled it in. I considered myself a liberal, so clearly, he was including me in those groups, and I felt attacked.

“You’re talking about me, aren’t you?” I asked, feeling attacked again, this time by Dennis’s use of the term low-information voter. “Because I don’t watch political programs very often.” Make that ever, I thought. Unless you count Jon Stewart and the Daily Show or listening to All Things Considered on NPR. The truth is, I get my political news from friends, and I’ll be the first to admit that probably isn’t the most reliable source. I’ve played the game “telephone” and know how easily messages get garbled. But I still knew enough to push back on some of Dennis’s craziness.

“Heavens, no. I’m not talking about you,” he was quick to respond. “You and I may have different sources, but you’re certainly up on most of the issues. At least as far as mainstream media coverage is concerned.”

I wasn’t enjoying our discussions nearly as much as I had in ‘08. Politics had taken on a darker, more ominous feel. Eight years later I wasn’t venting frustration about the stock market or the airlines. I was angry and afraid. Angry about all the good Obama could have done if only the Republicans and the Democrats had cooperated in Congress. Angry at a political system seemingly funded by, and beholden to, corporations with more rights than individual citizens. Afraid of the growing anti-Muslim sentiment and what it might lead our friends and allies to think of us.

Dennis also seemed to feel the heaviness. His smile and laugh were not quite so ready or free. He brought in the big guns more often, quoting books by Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Having read no liberal equivalents, I was defenseless and felt defeated. Not defeated as in convinced that he was right, but defeated as in convinced I was a weak, unprepared soldier, incapable of defending my side.

Over one of the best dinners I had ever eaten, courtesy of K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen, we stuck to reminiscences and the relative merits of Dennis’s new iPhone over my battered Android model. I don’t know whether we backed off from politics because we were in a nice restaurant and respected the other diners, or because my sense of defeat was palpable.

We spent our second day together looking for a bayou. We were hoping for exotic waterways winding their way through forests of skeletal trees draped in Spanish moss, alligators lurking where you least expect them. We headed east and then north, taking Highway 90 through the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge.

Our first stop was a scenic viewpoint. Imagine our disappointment to find no trees, no Spanish moss, no gators. We’d stopped at a bird watching site, which would have been great if either of us had been into birds or if it hadn’t been January, too late to see the fall migrations and too early for the spring.

From the Bayou Sauvage, we headed north again. As Dennis drove, I thought about how different my views were from his. Often, Dennis’s truths and my truths seemed diametrically opposed. For example, both of us had heard that textbooks were being rewritten to reflect political bias. Both of us had heard that among the most obvious changes was the rewriting of history to minimize the role of certain of our Founding Fathers and to downplay slavery’s role in the Civil War. Dennis held liberals responsible for this. I was certain the conservatives were behind it.

Dennis seemed unsurprised at any of my ideas and positions. After all, I’d attended two liberal arts colleges, and we all know those institutions are hotbeds of sedition, intent on brainwashing unsuspecting students with their liberal agendas. (Okay, we don’t all know this. In fact, I’ve always thought they taught me to be open-minded. But at this point in our political journey, Dennis was convinced of this.) I found myself scratching my head, confused that someone as intelligent and thoughtful as Dennis could see the world so differently from me. Really, where was he getting these ideas? From TV maybe? From Rush Limbaugh?

Where, in fact, do any of us get our ideas?

I asked Dennis this question on that second morning. Like me, he considered his ideas his own. I suspect most people consider themselves independent thinkers. That said, we base our opinions and “truths” on the facts that we have. And while Dennis was certain the shows he followed made every attempt to be objective (unlike, he claimed, my liberal media) he agreed they probably did have biases. Because of that, we started to get curious, and ended several discussions with, “Send me a link when you get home,” or, “I’d like to see your sources on that one!”

The second day, discussions were a bit more fun as we paused now and then to compare media coverage and to point out the little ways we agreed with one another.

For example, we agreed that immigration was a problem—but not for the same reasons or in the same way. We agreed there was something seriously wrong with the political system, though he was convinced the problem was the left, trying to turn us into the United Socialists States, and I thought it was crony capitalism paying off all the politicians on both sides of the fence. We started to see trends. I tended to blame greedy crony capitalists for most of our problems. Dennis blamed big government.

“We care about the same things,” I pointed out. “It’s just that my bogeyman lives under the bed and yours lives in the closet.”

By this time, we’d turned west to drive along the shore of Lake Pontchartrain. We weren’t sure where we were going, so when we saw the sign for Big Branch National Wildlife Refuge, we pulled into the visitor center. Foiled again! It wasn’t just the wrong time of year, it turned out to be the wrong day, too. The visitor center was closed Wednesdays. That meant no gift shop, no bookstore, no wildlife displays, and no respite from politics.

“What about hiking?” I asked a park ranger. “Somewhere we can get a feel for the bayou.”

She directed us back the way we’d come, to a trail called Boy Scout Road1.

The trail started with the boardwalk. According to the signs, during some months of the year, the wetlands sometimes appeared dry. On this day, the boardwalk seemed to float on shallow water. We were alone on the boardwalk, perhaps in the entire wildlife refuge. Even the wood ducks were absent.

We still hadn’t found our Spanish moss, but the scattering of dead pine trees created an almost equally eerie feel. According to the signs, the area had once been a slash pine forest. Over the years, the trees had drowned as the ground sank and water spilled in. One theory for this was that it was caused by the levees that prevent flooding. Another theory was that it was caused by the extraction of oil and gas deposits below the the area’s surface.

I bit back a comment about humanity’s impact on the environment. It was a crisp winter day, and Dennis and I, who for the past day and a half couldn’t find much we agreed on, agreed that we were loving this opportunity to get out into nature. I didn’t want to break the spell with politics.

After the boardwalk, we followed a gravel road that led to a viewing platform overlooking the Bayou Lacombe. We strolled along, enjoying the smell of the fresh damp air, pointing out birds flying overhead, and scanning the roadside ponds in hopes of a snake, turtle, or gator sighting.

The viewing platform at the road’s end provided a vivid example of climate’s impact on the land. Storm surges and salt spray from Hurricane Katrina had killed 90% of the trees within view. There was hope that, over time, many would grow back, but not if extreme storms like Katrina continued to force brackish water into the once freshwater area. And there it was again, politics, raising its ugly head. Looking out at the devastation, I couldn’t resist asking, “You really don’t believe in global warming?”

“No, I don’t,” he said. Before I could push back on that he added, “Global warming is a term leftist politicians coined to sensationalize the science around climate change and convince gullible liberals that it’s a political issue.”

“We don’t believe global warming is a political issue,” I said. “It’s an environmental issue. It’s the politicians on the right who are making it political by stonewalling every effort to stop it.”

“I disagree,” Dennis said. “What do politicians on the right have to gain? Nothing, that’s what. The left, though, they’re using it to increase their power.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about regulations and carbon taxes. And since there is nothing we can do to stop climate change, those taxes are not environmental, they’re punitive, designed to fund the big government.”

I ignored the big government comment and zeroed in on his comment about not stopping climate change. “So, you do believe in climate change?”

“Climate change, yes. Global warming, no,” he said. “There’s no proof that the global climate is warming. In fact, these past two winters have been the coldest on record. Plus, there’s absolutely no proof climate change is caused by man.2”

I was finding Dennis an oddity. I’d heard the term “climate deniers” and always equated it with ostrich-like people so self-involved that they refused to see what was going on all around us, so interested in making a buck now that they wouldn’t listen to reason. Dennis didn’t fit that description. Dennis loved nature. Dennis drove an electric car. Dennis had installed solar panels on his roof and was proud to be selling energy back to the Tennessee Valley Authority power company. Dennis wasn’t arguing that climate change didn’t  exist, he was arguing that humankind wasn’t the primary cause of it.

“What do you mean no proof?” I asked. “What do you call melting ice caps, messed up weather patterns, and rising sea levels?”

“I studied biology in college, remember?” Dennis said. “You know, scientific method? Experiments? Global Warming is a theory. Where’s the proof? Nowhere. There is no proof.”

“Sure there is.” Even I remembered high school experiments proving how the greenhouse effect works.

“No, there are experiments proving some of the isolated processes that may be influencing our climate. But no experiments proving mankind is causing the changes. You’d need a control planet just like ours but with no humans to prove that, and of course we don’t have one of those.” He gave me a smug, got-you-this-time look. “And there are certainly no experiments that disprove the competing theory.”

“Which is…”

“Mother Nature. God. The Earth’s climate has always been cyclical. You liberals never mention that, despite the fact that we have ice core samples from the poles that prove it.”

“We liberals do mention that,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean humankind isn’t speeding up the process.”

“But carbon emissions causing the earth to heat up? Pishaw. Carbon is a naturally occurring substance that plants need to grow. If anything, carbon emissions are good for the environment. More carbon means better crops.”

“You know it’s possible to have too much of a good thing,” I pointed out. “Carbon is one of the greenhouse gases.” Dennis was getting all science on me, and I knew I wasn’t sounding nearly as smart as he was. “Do you really think people have no impact on the environment?” I asked.

“Hell, no,” Dennis said. “We’re polluting the water and the air something awful. There’s a show on cable about moonshiners and in one episode they were trying to track down the cause of a whole batch of bad-tasting white lightning. You know what it was? Some idiots had polluted the water upstream from these guys’ still. It was criminal.”

“So, does that mean you support having laws against polluting like that?”

“Of course.”

To misquote Alice, I went further down the rabbit hole, and the conversation was getting curiouser and curiouser. “But you’re against stopping global warming?” I asked.

“I’m against making climate change a political issue. Politicians don’t know anything about science. But they do know a chance to bamboozle the American public when they see one.”

I was quiet for a while after that, digesting what he’d said. I, too, had wanted to know how carbon trading worked and how the money from fines would help. Then I’d read an explanation, and while it made sense to me at the time, I couldn’t remember any details. I wondered how the conversation would have proceeded if I could just bring in that article I’d read. But I couldn’t. “I think it’s time to head back to Metarie,” I said at last. We were to meet up at cousin Wendy’s house at six.

We took back roads to the highway and finally got a glimpse of bayou country: long dangly moss, surprise moorings, houses on stilts, but no gators. In Slidell, we stopped at the McDonald’s for a snack before heading back to town and meeting up with the cousins. I felt like a food snob. When my kids had been little, McDonald’s had been our home away from home. The play areas had saved our sanity. Now, though, I worried about the calories, the trans fats, and the rumors I’d heard that the beef was coming from South America, where they were destroying the rain forest to grow cattle and undercut American cattlemen. I settled for a water.

By the time we met up with Wendy and Joyce, my fussing about discussing politics had taken a new turn. Prior to my political talks with Dennis, I’d assumed I could talk to anyone about anything. Now I wasn’t so sure. If my views were this different from Dennis’s, how different would they be from Wendy’s or Joyce’s?

I didn’t know Wendy or Joyce all that well. We’d only seen each other a handful of times as kids, and less often as adults. I’d known their mother, my Aunt Wanda, much better. She’d made regular visits to California and later to Oregon to see Mom and Grandma. By then, her daughters were off living their own lives.

Aunt Wanda had been conservative through and through, to the point that she had scheduled elective surgery to repair a hernia for December of 2013, fearing that January of 2014 would be too late because Obamacare would be in effect, meaning any healthcare she would receive after that would be either non-existent or inferior. Nothing I said would convince her otherwise. Whatever she’d been hearing about Obamacare had terrified her.

Her hysteria aside, Aunt Wanda and I had been concerned about many of the same problems. We just had different ideas for how to fix things. For instance, we both felt that it was unfair for women to bear all the responsibility for an unwanted pregnancy. Aunt Wanda had believed in personal responsibility and accountability but hadn’t been in favor of legislating good behavior. Her solution? Staple the father’s penis to the child’s forehead when a child was born so there’d be no way he could shirk his parental duties. I suspected she had only been half joking when she proposed that.

Now I was sitting across the table from her daughters, wondering what their political affiliations were. I was afraid to ask their opinions on Trump or even the weather. To be clear, I wasn’t afraid of them as much as afraid of where the conversation might go. Family is more important to me than politics, and the last thing I wanted was to start an argument, so I kept my mouth shut.

I was glad when Dennis reminisced about the time Wanda and her cousin Janie had visited his homestead in Tennessee. A little while later, I was tickled to hear the tale of how Wendy’s daughter had managed to sneak her dog into her new apartment in Boston. Not once did I say anything that could possibly lead us into politics. I didn’t mention work, weather, religion, or the upcoming election.

The dinner went smoothly, as did the trip back to the house where we went through almost a century’s worth of photos. At the same time, I felt like an outsider, someone who didn’t dare speak up, and therefore didn’t belong.

That night I lay awake reviewing my conversations with Dennis. Why the different bogeymen? How could we have such different facts? When we had the same facts, how did they add up to different answers? If he’d been anyone else I would simply have said he was misguided. After all, everyone I knew considered FOX News propaganda for the right. But this was Dennis. If I couldn’t trust him, who could I trust? At the same time, if I didn’t trust my own gut, what could I trust?

My mind kept coming back to the global warming discussion. It had been different. I had learned something—if not about the science, then about Dennis’s worldview. I didn’t think Dennis had learned anything from me, though, and that was disquieting.

And then there was my interaction with the other cousins. Why had I been so terrified to bring up politics? Was it the taboo? Fear of being seen as wrong? Being the enemy? And what did my concerns say about Dennis and me? We seemed to be doing pretty well, but how many conversations would it take to erode the closeness we had? How much feeling labeled and, worse, defeated, could I take?

Around 3:00 a.m., the biggest cockroach I’d ever seen ambled down the wall to the left of my bed. The cockroach reminded me of horror films. Horror films reminded me of mad scientists. Mad scientists reminded me of experiments.

What Dennis and I needed was an experiment: a way to figure out whether either or both of us was being brainwashed. Did I vote Democrat simply because I listened to NPR instead of Rush Limbaugh? What would happen if I watched FOX News? Would my positions on key political issues change? And what would Dennis think if he watched Rachel Maddow and listened to NPR?

The cool thing was that Dennis liked science. I would invite him to do some science with me. Together we would unravel the mystery that had been too convoluted for me during the night. At 8:30, groggy from lack of sleep but giddy with new ideas, I reached out to him via text message:

Lisa: Want to do some experiments with me to figure out why we have such different political views?

Dennis: I guess. What do you have in mind?

Lisa: Not sure yet.

Dennis: Just let me know how I can help.

I smiled. This was going to be fun!

In answer to the question many people ask after hearing this story:

Yes, Dennis and I are still close.  He fully supports CPL and has even flown out to attend one of our meetings.

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    1. Affective Polarization

    Affective polarization revolves around emotions and feelings. It refers to the emotional divide between individuals or groups with differing political views. It’s about how people feel about others who hold opposing ideologies.

    • Us vs. Them: In affective polarization, people tend to see those on the other side of the political spectrum as part of an “us vs. them” mentality. Emotions like anger, fear, and distrust often come into play.
    • Emotional Reactions: When encountering someone with opposing views, affectively polarized individuals may experience heightened emotions. They might feel threatened, defensive, or even hostile.
    • Echo Chambers: Social media and personalized news feeds can exacerbate affective polarization by reinforcing existing beliefs and isolating individuals from diverse perspectives.

    2. Cognitive Polarization

    Cognitive polarization focuses on thought processes and cognitive biases. It pertains to how people think about the views of others.

    • Discounting Opposing Views: Cognitive polarization leads to a tendency to discount opposing viewpoints without critically evaluating them. People may jump to conclusions, assuming that differing opinions lack validity or logical soundness.
    • Us vs. Them (Again): Just as in affective polarization, cognitive polarization reinforces the “us vs. them” mindset. It hinders open-mindedness and intellectual curiosity.
    • Intellectual Echo Chambers: Cognitive polarization occurs when people surround themselves with like-minded sources, reinforcing their preconceptions and avoiding exposure to alternative perspectives.

    The Interplay Between Affective and Cognitive Polarization

    Affective and cognitive polarization often feed into each other. Emotional reactions (affective) influence how we process information (cognitive), and vice versa.

    Breaking the Cycle: CPL recognizes that depolarization  requires us to address both affective and cognitive aspects. Encouraging empathy and  active listening is not enough.  We must also teach critical thinking and intellectual humility if we are to truly bridge the gap.

    About Bridging

    Bridging refers to the intentional effort to reduce toxic polarization by fostering understanding, empathy, and communication between individuals or groups with differing political views. It aims to build connections and discover our shared humanity, ultimately bridging the gaps that divides people along ideological lines.