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Permission to Speak Freely

The one positive side effect of the underlying ill polluting this election

The first time it happened, I was interviewing the actor Mark Moses — Duck from Mad Men. I was sitting in a sweltering car in California, asking him questions via phone about playing a handsome heel, when the voice coming through the speaker unexpectedly started talking about Donald Trump. It was August 2015, and Moses, who was then playing a president, couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want Trump to play one, too. I hadn’t asked him about the election or given him any indication of where my loyalties lied, but before I had time to wonder whether Duck was a Democrat, he demanded to know what people liked about Trump. Without waiting for answers, he listed what he saw as several wrongheaded reasons. “Put that in your column,” he said. Surprised, I said the same thing as everyone else: Trump’s run wasn’t likely to last. “We all hope so,” Moses said. I’d never met Moses — had barely talked to him — but already I was one of “we all,” a foxhole friend.

The last time it happened was a few weeks ago, when my fiancée and I met a friend for happy hour. The friend brought a coworker, someone we hadn’t met, and for the first few minutes the conversation stayed on safe ground: where are you from, what do you do, who’s going to win the World Series. Our answers must have passed some unspoken test, because before his dollar oysters arrived, our new acquaintance opened up about his election anxiety. How could the race be as close as it was, he wondered without preamble, actually putting his head in his hands. What were people thinking? Our friend tried to console him, citing Nate Silver’s projections (which at the time looked awful for Trump), but he couldn’t be calmed by percentages; any chance of a Trump victory, he said, was enough to cost him sleep.

Normally, bringing up politics so soon and so seriously would have been at best a faux pas, and at worst conversational kryptonite. But he wasn’t sheepish, and he wasn’t worried that he’d overshared. “It seems perfectly acceptable to talk about this election,” he explained soon after. “I don’t hesitate to do it. In any other election season, I’d avoid the topic.”

There’s not much we’ll miss about this election cycle. We’ll all be better off without the insults and emails, the slurs and the spray tans, the leaks and the lies. If there’s one thing that’s made the whole unimaginable mess more tolerable, though, it’s been that freedom to fret about it — to vent or joke without fear of offense, and to treat drinks with almost-strangers as a substitute for the psychiatrist’s couch. If this campaign season was an open wound, talking was the tourniquet. And the deeper the wound went, the quicker we tried to tie it off.

Traditionally, politics and religion have been taboo topics at the table, as well as in the workplace. “No matter how perceptive you think you are, you can’t possibly know someone else’s personal beliefs,” wrote Anna Post, Emily’s great-great-granddaughter, in an article about avoiding “political pitfalls.” (Etiquette runs in the family.) “Don’t presume that someone agrees with you — or disagrees, for that matter.”

Despite what Post said, it’s become increasingly safe to presume during this election cycle. That perception is partly a product of geography: I live in New York, which polls as one of the most lopsided states on either side of the spectrum. In swing states, conversations might be more guarded, but in strongly red or blue regions, there’s little reason not to let loose. I’ve probably talked to Trump voters during the race, but if so, I was no more aware of them than of the murderers I probably brushed by on the sidewalk or the subway. (Not that I’m equating the two.)

But the vanishing political filter isn’t one of those quirks that makes people smile and say “Only in New York!” It’s a symptom of a deeper — and deepening — divide. American politics are more partisan than ever, and more divided along educational lines. Since we tend to socialize with people we went to school with, or people who have similar jobs (and similar educational backgrounds), we’re less likely to encounter in person anyone with whom we disagree. If we do, we’re less likely to talk to them. In some ways, we’re worse than the Crawleys; Lord Grantham bristled when Branson brought up politics in the Downton Abbey dining hall, but at least Branson had a seat at the table.

Partly because of this polarization, Trump and Hillary Clinton are the most disliked nominees on record. While Clinton isn’t as unpopular among her constituents as Trump is among his likely voters, she’s a lot less popular than Barack Obama was in 2008 and 2012. That relative apathy (and antipathy) has also translated to an unusually high proportion of the electorate that’s ostensibly undecided (although a lot of those undecideds aren’t as undecided as they say). In short, there just aren’t as many true believers to bridle at critiques of either candidate. On top of that, more than half of Americans report that the opposing party makes them “afraid,” and that proportion (as well as the percentage of people who ascribe a whole host of other negative qualities to opposing party members) rises among the politically engaged people who are more likely to make public comments in the first place. That removes another reason not to say what we mean, like those people in the Citi card commercial. People we reflexively dislike aren’t people whose good sides we want to stay on, so there’s no harm done if someone is caught in the rhetorical crossfire.

Unlike most Americans, I do believe things are better than they used to be, and that they will soon be better still. In aspiring presidents’ discourse, though, we’re worse off than before. We’d probably be less stressed if we could stomach both candidates enough not to unfriend or divorce the dissenters, and we’d certainly be less stressed if we actually wanted to hear what the other side had to say. In lieu of either unrealistic scenario, though, there’s the freedom to say “Screw it” and send that tweet, post that status, or hijack that conversation. It won’t change anyone’s mind: Either they already agree or they never will, and if anything, your words will make them more entrenched (and make them like you less). But damned if it doesn’t feel good, just this once, to toss the verbal grenade without caring about the casualties. It’s the one positive side effect of an underlying ill — the ice cream after the tonsil removal, the chemical cocktail that keeps us crawling to safety before we fall into shock.

None of the nastiness of the last 18 months will evaporate after tomorrow, although if the voting plays out as most models foresee, it should be more muted (unless you turn on Trump TV). If we’re lucky, politics is about to go back to being the thing we don’t have to talk about at dinner — not because it’s better to hide our feelings, but because the stakes will no longer seem so high. That will be welcome, but for one year, being blunt was what worked. When both sides believed that the candidates behaved badly (and one of them definitely did), the only way we could cope was to abandon etiquette, too.