Family and friendship face new strains amid America’s growing political divide
By Charles Homans and Alyce McFadden
The past two years of American politics have cost Emory Liggett at least two close friends.
The first was a Democrat who objected to Liggett’s continued insistence that the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump, a parting of ways that seemed understandable enough to him. But the second one — a friend with whom Liggett, a 73-year-old retired gemstone dealer in North Carolina, had traveled to jewelry shows for 20 years — came as a shock.
“I thought he was a good conservative Republican,” said Liggett, a Republican himself. “One day he says, ‘I don’t want to talk to you anymore.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And he says, ‘Because I don’t believe in this Republican GOP MAGA’ ” stuff, using a far sharper expletive.
As a new poll suggests, the increasingly stark ideological divides of American politics have come with personal consequences. Nearly 1 in 5 voters — 19% — said that politics had hurt their friendships or family relationships, according to a poll conducted last week by The New York Times and Siena College.
For all the concern over violent political rhetoric and outright political conflict in the United States, the ruptures that people described were typically quiet ones made more in sorrow than anger, as people with years of common experience came to the conclusion that they no longer even agreed on enough facts to have coherent arguments.
“There’s a great deal of hurt,” said Paul Lucky, 73, a child-care provider and a self-described left-leaning Democrat who lives near Sacramento, California, and who spoke of a strained relationship with his Republican son.
Close to half of the voters in the survey also acknowledged making judgments about other people based on their politics. Forty-eight percent of those polled said that knowing a person’s political views told them either a lot or a little about whether someone was a good person.
Democrats and independents were somewhat more likely than Republicans to say that politics had taken a toll on their relationships. Twenty percent of Democrats and 21% of independents said so, compared with 14% of Republicans. But in interviews, people across the ideological spectrum told similar stories of estrangement: conversations broken off with siblings and children, decadeslong friendships that have gone quiet. Most dated to the early days of Trump’s presidency and have not abated since its end.
The personal effects of political disagreements diverged sharply by race, reflecting closer partisan divides within some groups than others. While 20% of white and Hispanic voters reported their relationships having been hurt by politics, only 7% of Black voters did.
In discussing politics with his family of “die-hard Democrats,” William Robertson, a Republican from Acworth, Georgia, who is Black, said he had opted for diplomacy. “I will just very gently put my views out there and give them something to think about,” said Robertson, who is 60 and self-employed. “We can agree to disagree.”
In interviews, several voters pointed to Facebook as an aggravating factor, a space where relationships and politics seemed to collide unavoidably.
“It’s like you’re walking down the street and you see someone holding up a stupid sign, but the person holding up that sign is someone you care about,” said Nelson Aquino, 40, a Democrat and an information technology project manager near Orlando, Florida. “You want to be like, ‘Put down that sign and go home.’ And you start having these arguments.”
For Earlette Bleasdale, a retired customer service manager in Garland, Texas, Facebook was once a means of staying in touch with a family spread across a sprawling state. “It’s real easy to post pictures and stuff,” she said.
But during the Trump presidency, Bleasdale, 63, a registered Democrat in a family of Republicans, couldn’t resist needling them about the president. “On Facebook, it’s so easy to post memes, post opinions,” she said. “People I wouldn’t normally talk politics with, now we’re talking politics.”
She said that both of her brothers and her brother-in-law had blocked her on the platform. “Some of my friends have blocked me, too,” Bleasdale said. “Nothing like screaming and yelling at each other, but there’s no contact.”
Richard White, a building engineer in Des Plaines, Illinois, and a Republican in a mostly Democratic family, said that the politics of recent years had “really taken a toll on mine and my father’s relationship.” He said he lamented the lack of open debate about politics in his social circle and the way that snap judgments had been substituted for both argument and understanding.
“Once I tell people that I voted for Trump, without even hearing the back story behind it” — he did not support him in the 2016 primary — “right away I’m a racist, I’m a Nazi,” White, 49, said.
Some voters said they had tried to repair relationships by belatedly excising politics from them. After phone calls with his son ended in angry hang-ups, Lucky “made an effort to not talk about politics,” he said. “The decision that I made was that he’s more important” than politics, he added.
Liggett, too, held out hope that he might salvage the relationship with his old friend from the trade-show circuit. “It’s just that it won’t be until after the election before we even start being friendly again,” he said.
And, of course, there was the next election, too.
“It’ll get better for a while,” he said. “Until 2024 comes around.”