The Fantasy Of Political Intimacy

We’d be better off abandoning the dream of concord, a myth that keeps us politically stalled.

Marie Doerfler for Noema Magazine
Eve Fairbanks is a journalist.

In 2019, a German journalist named Bastian Berbner wrote an article about an experiment in Ireland called a “citizens’ assembly.” Starting in 2013, “normal” Irish people — mailmen, baristas — were recruited from across the country to sit together in a ballroom for weeks to debate critical political issues. These assemblies were purposefully not referendums; the leaders who came up with the idea felt that referendums tended to push people toward divisiveness and partisanship. The way to overcome that would be a democratic intervention that felt far more intimate: a project where you actually conversed with your political adversaries.

Berbner wrote up the Irish project at length because it yielded what he called an “unlikely” friendship between an elderly right-winger, “the Irish version of the angry, old white man [who] would have voted for Donald Trump,” and a young, gay, left-wing male activist with painted fingernails. The story went viral under the English headline “The Unlikely Friendship that Helped Legalize Same-Sex Marriage in Ireland.” Berbner wrote he hoped their friendship at least partly pushed the citizen group toward its surprising vote to support legalizing gay marriage in historically Catholic Ireland.

Many people worldwide feel the way Berbner did: We hope for a kind of politics or interaction in which we can talk across ideological boundaries or meet in local, physical groups to confront issues that affect us personally. We hope this might have a transformative effect on our politics, which we believe has become too global, too impersonal, too online and therefore much too mean and tribal.

Social scientists have measured recent — and sharp — increases in self-reported political polarization in societies as different as Iraq, Greece, Canada, Poland and India. Four-fifths of Turks recently told a pollster they wouldn’t want their child to marry a person who preferred a different political party, and three-quarters wouldn’t even do business with such a person. In 2019, Politico invited people to compose a paragraph about what “fix” might improve global politics. One person who responded proposed handcuffing every freshman member of Congress to someone from a different political party for a year.

The comment captured a desperate longing for less bitter, less conflictual politics and the corollary belief that many of our divisions are fake or amplified by divisive, scheming powerbrokers and con artists. Three-quarters of Americans, for example, agreed in 2014 with the premise that “our differences are not so great that we cannot come together” — if only some contemporary phenomenon (social media? the decline of religion? the filibuster?) wasn’t intervening to disrupt our natural comity.

That purported conviction in our ability to find common ground, though, is juxtaposed against the simultaneous feeling it would take brute force, dictatorship or some kind of total miracle to overcome polarization. We feel we must overcome political polarization to make progress on the frighteningly big problems that now confront us all, like anthropogenic climate change.

So we fetishize stories like the one from Ireland, where the right-wing mailman and the left-wing activist not only end up voting in tandem — finding policy consensus — but become friends. I fetishized it. I read it three times — it suggested something so hopeful and implied these hopes could be made real. It reminded me of how religious people pass around news of a miracle witnessed in some small far-flung town, hoping similar ones are forthcoming.

“I actually have such a relationship already — with my own mother.”

I think of this as the longing for something we might call “political intimacy.” Political intimacy incorporates both the desire to engage with politics on a more local, less online, more intimate level and the desire to find “consensus” through personal intimate conversations and friendships “across divides.” There are so many books, podcasts, journalism projects and political initiatives afoot to shift people’s focus from the global or national, which seems hopelessly abstract, to the local.

There’s the life coach in the Abu Tor neighborhood of Jerusalem, for example, who has started hosting parties with her Palestinian neighbor where Jews and Arabs get to know each other intimately. In Germany, a movement has sprung up to get Turkish and German neighbors living in gentrifying parts of Berlin to recognize and fight for their common wish to keep rents affordable. In America, it can feel now as if every other major political essay ends with an exhortation about the need to find more “consensus,” an encouragement to find common purpose with our perceived political enemies or to break out of our political “bubbles.” A well-known pair of couples therapists, Helen LaKelly Hunt and Harville Hendrix, have started facilitating conversations between Republicans and Democrats.

It’s funny, though, that I fetishized the article about the “unlikely” and politically generative friendship between the elderly right-winger and the young lefty activist. I actually have such a relationship already — with my own mother. It ticks the boxes: She’s a serious conservative and I’m a liberal. It’s intimate. It’s persistent. We text every day.

When I mention to other people that my mother doesn’t share my politics, many confess they, too, have a relative whose politics they hate — and so they don’t talk to them, or they put a moratorium on political discussions. My mother and I developed the opposite relationship. We talk about politics all the time. Several times a week I wake up to a link she’s sent me from a conservative political news source I’d otherwise never have read. I’ll respond and we’ll go back and forth about it, sometimes until late at night.

I reread the Irish story recently because its elements — what we fantasize would happen if we made friends across aisles — are missing from the political intimacy I have with my own mother. And I think the kind of political intimacy the two of us have is the likelier kind, the more common story — if less commonly told. 

People may hold onto a fantasy of what could happen if we connect across partisan divides as a way of putting off other, harder political work. We imagine bridge-building projects we know we’re supposed to do, but we defer them until some time in the future when we’ve attained a degree of consensus that rarely seems to happen in democracies — and probably won’t ever happen in a reliable, long-term, society-wide way.

I wonder if our desire for civility in democratic politics, for consensus, for building bridges, for a grand difference in the way we participate in civic life, has a self-protective quality — like the person who pines for the perfect romantic partner but never actually makes an effort to find them. We fantasize about civil, intimate politics precisely because we understand, deep down, that comity and consensus have never been features of democratic systems, and, conveniently, there’s so much we don’t have to tackle while we wait in vain for it to arrive.

My mother and I never quite “got” each other in the way family members “got” each other in some of my children’s books, where parents and children always laughed after their arguments. When we could take our differences lightly, my mother and I would laugh that sometimes it didn’t seem like we came from the same genetic stock. “I never imagined that I would give birth to a liberal,” she’d tell me.

My mother doesn’t remember being political until she went to a state college and encountered protests against the Vietnam War. On the one hand, the protesters said they stood for tolerance and love. Often, though, she remembers them being destructive, pelting veterans with eggs. She also told me she might have been born with a “conservative” mindset. She never liked women who rebelliously burned their bras.

She also felt attacked by liberals’ implication that such conservative mores were backward, faintly medieval, bound to be left behind by history. When Ronald Reagan became the U.S. president in 1981, she loved him because he seemed to unveil the hypocrisy she felt permeated the American left — a “hatred” of people who disagreed with them hidden behind peace symbols and celebrities touting progressive ideas. “The irony,” she told me, “was that Reagan was a movie star. He was sunny, and that threw liberals into despair.”

My mother felt attacked by liberals’ implication that such conservative mores were backward, faintly medieval, bound to be left behind by history.

By the time I was conscious of politics, I felt the same way she did, but about conservatives. The political commentators my mother listened to insisted they loved America and were the true optimists about its future. They said that victory in the first Gulf War, which began when I was eight, was critical to show the world that America captained a new and final global democratic order.

But none of them seemed eager to fight. The only soldier I knew was my physical-education teacher, a lower-middle-class Democrat who’d joined the military out of financial desperation. On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh implied America was a horrible place, already hopelessly overrun by bitchy feminists and immigrants. He pushed dark, proto-deep-state theories like one that Bill Clinton ordered the U.S. Navy to shoot down a commercial airliner over Long Island, killing 212 passengers, because somebody aboard knew some dirty secret about him.

I wondered how the definition of “conservatism,” as I was learning it in my civics classes — a belief that hierarchies tend to be useful or just and that custom is a good thing — comported with claims that the U.S. president and many of our institutions were totally rotten and needed to be destroyed. The fundamental emotion undergirding right-wing commentary was merry contempt, so much so that conservatives seemed radical.

Limbaugh claimed to prize “independence of thought,” and he took liberal callers. Most were earnest and wanted to debate him. What he always did, though, was hang up on them — sometimes with sucking and screaming noises; he called this “caller abortion” — and then taunt them for his listeners. It was conservatives who seemed cruel to me, and it was painful to me that my mother identified with people like him.

The rifts between my mother and I grew more uncomfortable — both the political and the personal ones. It felt as if one of us was always saying something that sounded like English but was actually a different language, and the other was reduced to bewilderment, wondering how anybody who thought such a thing could exist on the planet, much less in one’s own house.

Maybe everybody feels a little like that about their parents as a teenager. But it was as if every single thing each of us liked about ourselves — my mother prided herself on being timely, investing wisely in the stock market and loving stray animals, while my satisfaction came from technology, restaurants and clubs in unfamiliar neighborhoods and loving stray people — was the exact kind of thing the other person thought was scary or worthless.

We argued repeatedly about the time we both took a train to New York to visit my mother’s father, who had retired in Brooklyn. I was 11. It was supposed to be a four-hour train ride, but the Amtrak broke down. I took the delay as an opportunity to strike up an hours-long conversation with the man seated across from us. He was dour-looking, dressed all in black and said he was an Army veteran. He had me reach over and feel the shrapnel in his shin. My mother thought this engagement with a stranger was pointless and dangerous and that such “looseness,” as she put it, would get me into trouble one day.

By the time I went to college, we spoke rarely. I felt sad about that, because I’m my mother’s only child. And I knew she’d felt similarly about her own parents: alienated. Her father, a physicist, had encouraged her to go to university for science. When she finally revealed that she preferred literature and music, she felt he became disappointed with her. My grandfather promised he would support her financially, but my mother felt it was condescending, that he was making clear “he thought I was fundamentally an irresponsible person.”

“It was as if every single thing each of us liked about ourselves was the exact kind of thing the other person thought was scary or worthless.”

It hurt me to realize how she had been hurt, and I wanted her to be happy. But just as much, I wanted her to be happy about me — to acknowledge me as capable and wise and good, even though it seemed like our differing personalities made that impossible. When I went off to college, I sometimes claimed to roommates that I hated my mother. But all I really wanted was to do something she’d be proud of.

In early adulthood, she helped me over months when I was sick, letting me stay in my childhood bedroom and cooking me three meals a day. Mostly, she said she was pleased to do it because that kind of dedication was what it meant to be a mother. But one evening, after I’d shouted at her during some unrelated argument, I found her collapsed onto the floor of our dining room. “I love you,” she cried. “But I can tell you don’t feel it as love.”

By that time, my mother had become proud of being a partisan. She would rather die than vote Democrat. She thought leftists were the fundamental danger facing America, even though some Democratic policies — like antipathy to factory farming — corresponded perfectly with the actual values she lived. I was struck all the time that the severity of her politics didn’t seem to fit the softer, more ambiguous values that seemed to drive her private life.

Later in life, she became a piano teacher. Most of her students were the children of immigrants. She loved their families and sometimes — contrary to right-wing American orthodoxy — told me she felt their cultures were superior to America’s. Occasionally, she confessed she’d had a bohemian phase as a young adult. She had dropped out of college to go pick olives barefoot on a kibbutz in Israel, and then backpacked through Europe to a youth-hostel soundtrack of Bob Dylan. It frustrated me to hear this, because I thought that woman and I would have gotten along perfectly.

In 2009, I left the United States. My mother was unhappy at how far I moved: to South Africa, a 17-hour flight. As a way of seeing each other, we began to meet up every nine months or so for a mother-daughter vacation. We went to Cape Town and Lesotho, to Dublin and Rome.

On these trips, I was reminded of that bohemian who picked olives on a Marxist kibbutz. My mother is incredible with languages, and before we traveled to Greece in 2019, she bought herself a book of basic Greek phrases, which she studied on the airplane. She charmed our Airbnb host, who described himself to us as a “Marxist farmer-poet,” with a 20-minute conversation in Greek that left me in awe.

It seemed she felt freer outside the place she lived, both personally and, intriguingly, politically. It was as if, away from her familiar political milieu, she could reveal opinions, ambiguous feelings or inner intuitions she normally kept quiet because they were inconsistent with a political identity that had become important to her. After our Marxist Airbnb host gave us a disquisition on the problems inherent in capitalist systems, she told me she agreed that a totally unregulated market was a menace to human happiness — at least when it came to Greece.

My mother had become proud of being a partisan. She would rather die than vote Democrat.

I think, deep down, I had always assumed that my mother’s conservatism was some kind of psychological defense, not original or necessary to her but a shell built up by trauma. She recently told me she thought the same about me, that my liberalism and the fact that I’d voted for Barack Obama was related to my loneliness as an only child and my eternal longing to be in a “cool” crowd.

In the mid-2010s, when we began to talk politics more frequently, I think my goal was to draw out the other, somehow original, less politically distressing person I believed was hidden inside. Isn’t this the goal of so many of the exhortations we hear: to listen to the “other side”? Not just to listen, but, ultimately, to get our political adversaries to agree with us. As the liberal host of the podcast “Strangers” said to her listeners in 2017: Reach out to conservatives. Her ultimate goal seemed to be to shift everybody towards liberalism. The less “reviled” you make conservatives feel, she explained, the more “likely they are to allow doubt about their own beliefs to creep in.”

What are we actually looking for when we say we want to be less polarized, to have more conversations across political aisles? In some ways, we have far more contact now with people who don’t share our upbringings, customs and beliefs than we ever have in history, thanks to globalization, international freedom of movement and the internet. A study of tweets about the Arab Spring found that about 75% of people who clicked on them were from outside the Arab world.

Do most of us, when we voice this desire, just mean we wish that more of our political adversaries agreed with us? That we want consensus around our point of view?

We like to imagine a time when people got along politically. Humans have “thrived as a species because we are better at cooperation,” the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in January last year. We “collaborate to build shared environments we can enjoy together.” But the degree of political acrimony in democracies may seem like a present problem in part because we have a new-seeming word for it: “polarization.” “Political polarization” barely occurs as a concept in English-language literature before 2000, so it feels new.

It’s not. A hundred and fifty years ago, in America, it was called “political passion” and believed to be the dangerous enemy of reason, which itself was premised to be the fundamental psychosocial state that undergirded successful democratic politics. Abraham Lincoln described a wish for less polarization in his first inaugural address in 1861: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory … will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

In the U.S. in the 90s, people lamented a new “divisiveness.” Between 2006 and 2008, Barack Obama diagnosed America as having a growing “empathy deficit.” In truth, most of the research that reveals increasing political polarization measures “affective polarization” — whether people feel they radically differ, not their objective differences.

In the U.S., affective polarization has increased, and increased more since the late 70s than in other democracies like Canada, Australia and Sweden. Researchers often use a so-called “feeling thermometer” scaled between 0 and 100 to rate people’s negative attitudes toward other parties. One well-known study found that in 1978, the average American rated members of their own political party 27 points more positively than members of the other major party, but by 2016, Americans were rating their own party nearly 46 points higher.

“She thought leftists were the fundamental danger facing America, even though some Democratic policies corresponded perfectly with the actual values she lived.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that Americans rate their polity as more broken than other countries. We expect ourselves to be exceptional, the most perfect democratic family. This doesn’t mean we are more different, or that we actually do hate each other more than we used to. I’ve learned with my family — with my mother — that feelings we claim to have about each other are not always the ones we really hold, and that we can hold multiple feelings at the same time. I’ve learned we may even act as if we hate each other just because we want to. We may spend all our time believing we wish we had a beautiful, concordant relationship, while what we actually want is a contentious one.

Sometimes when I tell liberal friends I have near-daily, occasionally hours-long text-message conversations with a conservative relative, they express sheer bafflement. Why do you put yourself through that? Isn’t it exhausting? You don’t actually change each other’s minds, do you?

We don’t — not towards any tidy consensus. I think we both would say we’ve just barely shifted each other’s points of view. A lot of the time, we goad or laugh at each other. Once she taunted me during a foreign trip I took that I was at risk of being “droned by Obama.” Another time, I sent her vicious lines from a right-wing commentator she likes, only with the target switched from “leftists” to “conservatives,” so they sounded like my sentiments about her politics.

She was horrified. “Oh my God, what’s wrong with you? Do you need a Valium?” she wrote back, genuinely disturbed. But then I revealed the switch.

“How come I think he sounds righteously angry,” she asked, “when you, just then, sounded angry, but also crazy?”

A lot of our conversations specifically consist of efforts to prove the other person is inconsistent. I often send my mother passages from Rachel Maddow monologues, changing a few identifying words and claiming the phrases were said by a conservative radio host. She’ll heartily agree. And then I do the reveal: so, at heart, you’re a liberal!

These intimate encounters are partly chances for us to prove something to ourselves. She sends me academic studies purporting to prove conservatives are more open-minded or read more widely than liberals. I think one of her goals is to present to me, an intimate judge, her vision of how she wants to see herself in light of her insecurities and past wounds: as an especially rational and open-minded person.

Democracies live with many historical wounds. And sometimes I think democratic citizens are trying just as desperately in their political discourse to confirm their own goodness — their own individual adequacy for the terrifying task of self-rule — to the people they say they hate.

“We may spend all our time believing we wish we had a beautiful, concordant relationship, while what we actually want is a contentious one.”

We act as if polarization is a mystery. And that the solution is to act more like a happy family. But I know from my real family that embedded conflict happens both because people can’t help it, and also because we choose it.

There is one thing my mother and I would agree our political conversations reveal, though it’s an uncomfortable reality we also like to back away from. It’s that neither of us knows nearly as much about what should be done to fix the world’s problems as we think we do. In fact, we argue in a way that makes us seem increasingly certain of our political convictions precisely because we’re increasingly uncertain.

In one conversation, I complained about James Comey, the former F.B.I. director who became a leading critic of Donald Trump. “So you’re becoming more conservative?” she asked hopefully.

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “But when I talk with you, I do find I start to become more distrustful of liberals.”

It was a joke — a joke about the way her politics sometimes seems to me to consist mainly of anger toward liberals. But it was also true. Studies show people with different political beliefs, put into the same room, come out more agreeable toward each other. I believe this can happen in the short term. But over the long term, what we discover through cross-party discourse may be how little we know and, perhaps, how frighteningly fragile our convictions are.

I found myself unable to persuasively explain to my mother why the Paris climate accord was really going to solve global warming — and thus why it was criminal for Donald Trump to withdraw America from it. She’s always trying to show me how inconsistent and unserious liberals are. She points to how Obama voters praised his and Michelle Obama’s looks and to the lefty millennial obsession with “self-care,” which tends to take the form of buying expensive skincare products or clothes. “We all still agree women have to be good-looking,” she says. “Liberals are torn between worshiping physical appearance and insisting that other people shouldn’t be ‘ableist’ or notice it.”

She also points out the hypocrisy of a mutual friend of ours, an upper-middle-class self-described socialist who vehemently condemns conservatives for not caring about economic inequality while also bragging about her expensive kitchen renovations. “Liberals haven’t decided whether having a shitload of money is a good thing or a bad thing,” she said, “but they have these incredibly strong opinions.”

“Would it be fair,” I once asked her, “to say that you’re also not very political, but you’re politicized?”

She laughed darkly. “That would be a good description,” she acknowledged. “I’m part of the polarization of my country without, perhaps, having truly hardcore beliefs or principles I live by. I argue for them, but I don’t live them. I couldn’t explain how my feeling for animals and my support of animal rights fits into the kind of perfect free-market doctrine I support, because, obviously, people make money from poaching. You’re constantly asking me to be consistent,” she complained. “But I can’t. I’m human. I’m just not.”

Contemporary culture venerates consistency. Think of the apps we have to regulate our sleep schedules, office hours and workouts, or fashion’s appreciation for the “uniform,” wherein a person becomes cool when they wear the exact same thing every single day. Think of the monotony of modern work and living spaces. We also live in a global culture that venerates moral purity, claiming that silence in the face of any kind of injustice is complicity, and that we ought to make sure our every action is moral. In such a complex world, though, that’s impossible, and we rarely try as hard as we think we should.

The political critiques my mother and I most frequently lob at each other are projection — a sublimated fear that we are what we accuse each other of being: confused, lazy, hypocritical. And, thus, our vehement political debates satisfy us, or even constitute a form of play that helps us feel better. Though we know deep down we aren’t consistent or just, at least we can prove the other person is worse.

“What we discover through cross-party discourse may be how little we know and, perhaps, how frighteningly fragile our convictions are.”

What I find hardest to explain to people who ask why I have political conversations with my mother is that, on some level, it’s easier for us than the alternative.  It’s easier to have abstract, partisan exchanges, as heated and nasty as they can be, than it is for us to discuss the deepest and simplest problems we share: the state of our personal relationship; our intertwined family finances; our complicated and entangled relationship with my father; the way we sometimes both feel disappointed by each other’s choices.

I think this is true of broader political communities. It’s easier to bash each other than it is to wonder, together, why so few of us really do enough about the problems we actually agree on: poverty, environmental degradation, epidemic loneliness. A substantial number of Americans tell pollsters they believe all Americans know they share the same problems, that we all share responsibility for our difficulties. But a full quarter of Americans also tell pollsters they believe their country will only improve if “large numbers” of people who identify with the opposite political party “just died.”

A few years ago, I started to post some of the conversations my mother and I had on Facebook. I had friends who lamented they didn’t know any conservatives and worried they were in a “bubble.” I thought I’d introduce them to one.

I worried about publicizing these conversations, although my mother said she enjoyed the idea of liberals being forced to reckon with her views. I worried because my mother’s and my conversations are not the kind depicted in the story about the elderly Irish mailman and the young gay activist. They aren’t ones that appear to end productively, with an embrace, tears of relief and actionable policy prescriptions.

But people — left-wing people — loved them. If they had read my mother’s ideas written by a professional conservative politician, I think they would have hated them. But, through me, they felt like they knew the writer. The posts in which I quoted her got dozens, even hundreds of comments; people from Uruguay to Rwanda wrote to me eagerly about them, even if they found the content upsetting.

“I want a book of these conversations,” one person said. “Her honesty is refreshing,” said another. “Astonishing and enlightening,” said a third. “I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this all day.” They sent me questions (“Ask your mom if she thinks conservatives are underdogs in today’s media culture”) and expressed jealousy. “I wish I could have these conversations with my mom,” more than one person said.

The thing is, they could. Almost all of these people have a relative or a neighbor or an old friend who disagrees with them politically. Don’t you? I believe our high expectations for what ought to come out of some kind of more substantial, intellectually advanced or civil interaction with our political adversaries is precisely what holds us back from trying. We will not always, or even mostly, achieve consensus; we won’t come out of these encounters transformed.

“It’s easier to bash each other than it is to wonder, together, why so few of us really do enough about the problems we actually agree on.”

What we can achieve, though, is to know each other, which includes understanding the limits on our potential agreement, and understanding how eternally unknowable and infuriating other people can be. Because our relationship was fraught from the beginning, neither my mother nor I anticipate anything in particular — no specific positive feelings or consensus — to emerge from our encounters. In the end, we talk to each other because it can be amusing and interesting, and because we have to. We don’t have any other choice. She doesn’t have any other daughter, and I don’t have any other mother.

Democracies are the same. We already talk. We ought to acknowledge we already resemble many, maybe most, actual intimate relationships — their frequent sense of entanglement and frustration. 

In my mid-30s, I asked myself a question that changed my feelings towards my mother. What if you already have the best relationship you ever will have?

And what if contemporary democracies have all the underlying political consensus we ever will have, apart from our dramatic performance of partisanship? What would happen if we acknowledged the reality of our discord and difference, and that we get actual pleasure from disagreeing. What would happen if we abandon a fantasy of concord — a fantasy that keeps us politically stalled, since it means we’re always waiting for our opponents to come to their senses?

I recently read a quote from an old book of philosophy to my mother. “What everybody wants most in life,” the line went, “is a worthy adversary.”

“Maybe that should be the headline if you end up writing about us,” she said, and we laughed.