After 2016, many of my Clinton-supporting friends were appalled that I could even speak to my dad. Now he’s gone, and I see how he taught me empathy.
The last present I bought my dad was a red Make America Great Again beanie. In mid-December, I took a visiting European friend to a gift shop near the White House so he could buy political gifts for his cousins. Having just finalized holiday plans with my own family, I realized that I didn’t yet have a gift for my dad.
I had long tried to make light of our political differences, buying him a Hillary Clinton car air freshener several years earlier that received the anticipated thumbs-down. Given his support for President Donald Trump, I thought the hat would be a funny nod to his views. Yet my stomach dropped on Christmas when I watched him slip it on his head with a goofy grin.
Four months later, I walked into my dad’s home office hours after he died in a car accident. I immediately spotted the MAGA hat, jauntily perched on a stone bust sitting atop the piano. When I awoke the next morning, I saw my mom had quietly packed away this reminder of our disagreements.
Abandoning my father’s politics
I was raised in the Republican stronghold of western Michigan, home to former President Gerald Ford and current Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, with Christian values and conservative beliefs. With the exception of an enthusiastic vote for Jimmy Carter in my preschool’s mock presidential election, I largely adhered to my dad’s views. Yet seven years in Europe during my formative 20s — where I benefited from “socialized” medicine, witnessed 9/11 and its aftermath, traveled and debated with foreign friends — challenged my inherited worldview and led me to return home as a Democrat.
My psychologist father never understood why or how I strayed from his path, which frustrated his efforts to undo the perceived damage. He was troubled by the election of President Barack Obama, which initially made it hard for him to celebrate my professional success when I joined the State Department to work on European policy. After my mom and sister staged an intervention, he became better at applauding the cooler aspects of my job (like flying on Air Force Two) and discussing its nonpartisan challenges (like addressing democratic backsliding in Turkey).
Our predicament was reversed after the 2016 election, when my dad’s vote in the critical state of Michigan was counter to my values and employment prospects. His relief at Trump’s victory meant I refrained from phoning home for a few weeks until I felt able to engage in civil discourse. While many liberal friends sought comfort from their like-minded families that Christmas, I avoided political subjects over glasses of eggnog.
Several friends who were ardent Hillary Clinton supporters were appalled that I was even speaking to my dad. Our political conversations, which ranged from the Affordable Care Act to North Korea, were not easy; they usually ended with us staring gape-mouthed at one another and shaking our heads in disbelief. Yet I realized it was like looking in a mirror: My enthusiasm for Obama’s progressive policies was matched by his desire for Trump to course-correct.
Our country’s polarization is personal
Our situation, which humanized the polarization in the country, made me sensitive to how Democratic leaders sometimes portrayed the other side. My dad was undoubtedly a product of his time, but he was not “deplorable.” He didn’t “cling to guns,” though his rural upbringing made him skilled with a bullwhip. He didn’t “cling” to religion, even writing a book (“The Dangers of Growing Up in a Christian Home“) that sought to help those harmed by the church.
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Observing my dad’s curiosity about people helped me become a more bipartisan thinker. I watched him talk to everyone, from the congressman he met while collecting me at the local airport to the parking garage attendant. He was interested in hearing about their lives because he believed people do what makes sense to them. He also taught me that life is about choosing what set of problems you want to have; I decided preserving our relationship was more important than proving political points.
Our interactions motivated me to engage across party lines, which is admittedly easier with strangers lacking parental expectations. Since the election, I have spoken with community groups, students and local newspapers from the coasts to the heartland about foreign policy and government service. Inspired by my dad, I have also talked to people I met along the way: a shop owner in Montana who argued guns were essential in rural areas with wild animals, a Yellowstone tour guide who welcomed local immigrants but worried about those he saw on TV, and a businessman in Missouri who wanted less regulation.
Although we didn’t always agree, I gained a better understanding of their outlook and hoped they appreciated mine. By exploring the rich tapestry of American life, I embraced my dad’s belief that everyone has value and generally wants what is best for family and country.
In November 2020, I’ll be actively campaigning for the Democratic nominee. But I’ll also be wishing that Trump would receive one more vote in Michigan.
Amanda Sloat is a Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. She served for five years in the Obama administration at the State Department and National Security Council.Follow her on Twitter: @A_Sloat
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