04/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Avenging Aunt: When Political Bonds Fracture Families

A recent letter to Salon"s distinguished advice columnist Cary Tennis reads:

Like many extended families, ours has people who live and breathe Republican doctrine, and people who are liberal. Since the early Bush years, we have given each other a wide berth.

This week, someone sent out an e-mail talking about how Obama's policies weren't helping the economy and were probably killing it. Well, the floodgates on both sides opened. People felt personally attacked and were right to [feel that way]. ...

What now? I do want the whole family to be able to be a family. ... I don't know how to walk it back, though. The rift that opened up. . . was shockingly deep and raw.

As demonstrated by writers from Homer to Shakespeare, families have been torn asunder by political differences for millennia. It's only natural when you consider that, unlike social groupings, the family is not constructed of people of like minds who have gravitated towards each other.

At its worst in the United States, brothers fought against each other in the Civil War. More recently, family passions reached a peak during the sixties, when Baby Boomers rose up against both the Vietnam war and the presidents who waged it. Adding insult to injury, they slathered sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll on top of their political convictions.

In retrospect, TV character Archie Bunker might have seemed broadly drawn, but anyone who lived through that period knew people like him. As it's popularity reflected, All in the Family was a surprisingly accurate representation of what family life was like for many then.

Today political alienation is no longer a matter of age, with children sometimes to the right of parents, especially with no draft to galvanize them. But you could make the case that it's worse now because it can no longer be explained away by the generation gap. A decade ago, President Clinton's extramarital dalliances provided those normally uninterested in politics with a chance to give full vent to the ferocity of their opinions in a political context.

Then, of course, during the Bush years, those who fall under the headings of liberal, Democrat, or progressive went on the offensive. Now, with Obama president, the right has brought its vitriol to full boil again. Meanwhile, those without proper outlets for their political views air them with family and friends. Feelings are bruised; rifts open.

How does Tennis recommend that families deal with their differences?

"Would you like something to eat?" is a nice beginning. "Can I come over and help you mow the lawn?" is another.

You also might ask your relatives questions such as these: . . . Are you worried about losing your job? . . . How do your own plans for retirement look?

In other words, try to move from the conceptual to the concrete. Underneath "political" rhetoric are often real concerns. These are things you can talk about regardless of political beliefs.

Families. . . are made up of individuals. Those individuals may have opinions we consider misguided, but they also have lives that we care about. Concentrate on the lives, not the rhetoric.

That's fine as far as it goes. But first let's take a look at the content of the offending opinions. Try to recall your reaction the first time your otherwise warm and loving aunt said: "Abortion is murder. Doctors who perform them deserve what's coming to them." Or: "Muslims want to take over the world. We have to kill them before they kill us."

We're shocked at what's really in a loved one's heart. Does she have any idea how cruel she sounds -- never mind liberals, Democrats, or progressives -- but to most people in polite society?

What becomes of the relationship?

We can make excuses for our avenging aunt. After all, is she any less informed than most citizens? It's just that we can't understand how her generosity of spirit can give way, in a split second, to viciousness. Either ignorance is the breeding ground of evil or her warm, giving nature was just a façade.

In other words, we're unable to draw solace from Cary Tennis's words "but they also have lives that we care about." Because, well, we don't care any more. How can we "concentrate on the lives, not the rhetoric" when the life suddenly seems like a lie and the rhetoric the truth?

You may be one of those people who thinks it's your responsibility to shine a light on the dark corners of their minds, but that's a fool's errand. For most, your future relationship will likely consist of exchanging small talk with your aunt or letting her bend your ear for a few moments about, say, the indignities of old age. If she goes off on a rant, you'll nod politely and look for the first opportunity to excuse yourself.

Oh, did I mention the whole problem is compounded if, like most woman conservatives, she's a cultural conservative, too? Never underestimate the enduring power of Britney Spears to serve as a lightning rod for everything that's wrong with America.

Of course, if the family member with whom you have political differences is closer to you, like a parent or sibling, he or she can't help but notice that you're pulling away. That's where it becomes sad. Not only she, but you, feel incapable of giving to her what you once might have because of the barrier between you that only you perceive.

There are many to whom politics is tangential (though nothing like a financial crisis to concentrate the mind). A relationship based on small talk is usually enough for them. But to those of us immersed in current events -- anybody still use that term? -- one's political views are a window to the soul.

In the end, political differences between family members only reinforce a rueful truth: Family is just a random grouping of beings who, if fate hadn't cast their lots together, would likely have never sought each other out.