Angry in America
This election is rubbing some folks raw...but maybe that's not all bad for democracy
The bad feelings began bubbling over just before dinner. Gathered at Tom LaLiberte's house near Minneapolis for a family reunion a few days before the first presidential debate last month, the five brothers and sisters in the LaLiberte clan tried in vain to hold their tongues through an unusually awkward annual get-together.
All 40-somethings, the siblings grew up in a close-knit, politically moderate household in the working-class suburb of Crystal, Minn. But the three youngest members of the LaLiberte clan, Tom, Mary, and Ann, became George W. Bush supporters in recent years, a decision their older siblings, Kathy and Mark, found increasingly hard to stomach in the wake of the last election's vote-counting fiasco and the war in Iraq.
Trying not to ruin an otherwise glorious fall afternoon, the family members endured a round of small talk as they sipped wine on Tom's back porch. But when Mark, 45, spied a copy of conservative TV host Sean Hannity's book Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty Over Liberalism (which Tom had placed on a coffee table for fellow Republican Mary to take home and read), he just couldn't help himself.
"Can you believe Tom's reading this?" Mark asked eldest sister Kathy, 48, a card-carrying liberal herself.
Kathy was incredulous, too. "How can they read, much less believe in, this garbage?" she wondered aloud. "How can my own siblings be against healthcare and affordable housing and environmental protection and education?"
The book went back on the coffee table and the family sat down to dinner. But things only grew more uncomfortable, the stilted conversation marked less by what was said than by what wasn't. "It was just awful," recalls Mary, 43, who decided to keep mum through the meal. "Every time Mark and Kathy looked at me, I felt like they were thinking, 'How can you be so stupid?' And I was like, 'How can you be so judgmental?' It used to be that we could agree to disagree and still have a great time together. But now it's gotten so personal."
Caught up in one of the most divisive election seasons since the Vietnam War (when Richard Nixon edged Hubert Humphrey by less than 1 percent of the popular vote), the LaLibertes are hardly the only ones who've seen politics begin to sour some of their closest relationships. Egged on by campaign rivals who have all but called each other liars and emboldened by partisan shout shows like Fox's Hannity & Colmes and movies like Michael Moore's finger-pointing Fahrenheit 9/11, America's angry electorate has found it increasingly difficult to stop political disagreements from flaring into outright relationship-breakers. The depth of the nation's polarization is the subject of considerable scholarly debate (story, Page 42). But with just a couple of weeks to go until the election, there's little doubt that the atmosphere around America's lunch counters and dining-room tables has grown downright prickly.
"There's this roiling anger that people don't know where to direct or how to deal with," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, who recently watched a fellow airline passenger ask to be moved after seeing his seatmate reading a book by Moore. "I was astonished. Until then it hadn't occurred to me just how personal we've made politics, that you can't even sit next to someone just because they're reading a book you don't like."