Politics Wasn’t Meant to be Loved

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The Financial Times recently reported that men and women, especially among Gen Z, are increasingly diverging politically. Over the past 20 years, women between the ages of 18 and 29 have become considerably more liberal, while men in the same age cohort have become slightly more conservative. Given that most people marry those who are like them—including politicallysome worry the findings spell trouble for the future of relationships, marriage, and family formation. This being Valentine’s Day, however, let’s reflect not just on how growing political divisions are pillaging our romantic relationships, but on how toning down our obsession with politics might yield a change of heart.

But first, here’s the main problem: As traditional touchstones of meaning—faith, family, friendship—have declined in recent decades, people are increasingly misplacing their sense of purpose and identity in political issues. We’ve made idols out of politics, hurting not just our democracy but also our most personal relationships along the way.

What are some symptoms of this political idolatry and misplaced sense of purpose? 

One is a tendency to react disproportionately to political disagreement. It often feels like in everyday conversations we see people go from zero to 60 when a hot topic they’re invested in comes up, responding with inordinate rage, defensiveness, and aggression. It’s as if they were being personally attacked, resulting in an instinctive “fight or flight” response. If we’re thrust into survival mode the moment we are exposed to a heterodox view, a romantic relationship—which requires vulnerability and trust—where both parties disagree politically easily goes out the window. 

Another symptom is letting politics crowd out other areas of life. Everyday decisions—where we send our children to school; where, whether, and how we worship; where we get our news; what sports teams we support; and where we get our coffee or buy our running shoes—now have divisive, political dimensions. We’ve “overdone” democracy by making politics too central to our lives. And in overdoing democracy, in allowing politics to take up too much of our mental space, we have undermined it and the prospects of many personal relationships. 

And a third symptom is breaking off personal ties over politics. Children not speaking to their parents over their votes for Donald Trump. A friend cutting off a lifelong companion because of her pro-vaccine views. A niece choosing to skip family Thanksgiving because of her aunt and uncle’s extreme views on the environment. Allowing politics to come before family and friends is perhaps the most stark symptom of a disordered love and misplaced meaning in politics. And this tendency can prevent interpolitical romantic relationships from even forming in the first place.

Allowing one aspect of a person—their political views—to stand in for the sum total of a longstanding relationship, or allowing political differences to keep a relationship from happening in the first place, is both unduly reductive and essentializing of the other. Doing so ignores that we all come to our views of the world for many reasons. It’s also a personal tragedy: When we see the world through the cheapened simplicity of litmus tests of purity, we hurt others and ourselves.  

Winston Churchill said that “a fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” We’ve become a society of political fanatics: seeing threats where there aren’t any, making everything about our pet issues, and hurting our relationships and souls in the process.

What can be done? Can our personal lives be saved from the crisis of this political idolatry? Is there a way to not let politics dictate how and who we date?

There is.

It’ll involve putting politics back in its proper place, recovering the mental territory it currently occupies. When politics is the primary lens through which we view the world—when our own political beliefs are the most important things in our lives—it’s easier to demonize those who disagree with us and to justify cutting people out of our lives and out of society. So we’ll need to desaturate our lives of politics, and then fill the gap with life-giving, soul-enriching pursuits that will make civility in our politics both better and possible. Among these pursuits, I propose three: curiosity, friendship, and a renewed appreciation for beauty.

First, curiosity. Curiosity is a disposition of fundamental wonder about the world around us. It is a zealous interest in questions related to the human condition: Who are we? What is our purpose? What is our position amid the cosmos? Curiosity requires the humility to recognize our natural limits as human beings, and to realize that we never have known, never can or will know all the answers to these and other important questions in life. More than that, curiosity requires the modesty to respect that people will approach and answer these questions differently. 

When we’re curious, we see difference in opinion as an opportunity to grow, not as a threat to be quashed. Curiosity opens us up to friendship and romantic relationships that challenge us and make us better—to the end of reclaiming richer personal lives.

Second, friendship. “Friendship is unnecessary,” C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves. “It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” Friendship, like art, can flourish only after our basic needs are met, when we are in a position of relative safety and stability instead of in a state of war against our fellow man, nature, or ourselves. But such goods are what constitute civilization. So the basis of any society, or any romantic relationship for that matter, is friendship. 

Friedrich Nietzsche was wrong about many things, but he was right when he wrote, “Marriage is as one long conversation. When marrying you should ask yourself this question: do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this woman into your old age? Everything else in a marriage is transitory, but most of the time you’re together will be devoted to conversation.” The lifeblood of any relationship, romantic or platonic, is good dialogue—and dialogue is not mutually interesting with two parties who agree on everything. Plus, robust disagreements are best had and tempered when parties fundamentally love, care for, and respect one another. Intentionally cultivating friendship—and even romantic relationships—across differences is therefore an essential ingredient to the life well lived, and to healing our broken world. 

Third, we must recover a love of the beautiful and the sublime. Lewis also observes in The Four Loves that we often picture lovers face to face. True love based on friendship, however, more likely entails two friends standing side by side, their eyes looking ahead and outward together. That’s an essential part of friendship and successful romantic relationships. 

To better equip us for life together, we must build habits of introducing the sublime into our daily lives. After a long day at the office or an afternoon spent in traffic, we can rejuvenate ourselves by looking up at the stars at night, or reading a poem, or listening to a song, or contemplating a work of art that enriches our interior life. The 20th century philosopher Iris Murdoch made a similar point about the imperative to “unself,” letting the power of beauty and nature displace us from the center of our universe and to instead focus on others and the world around us. The practice of “unselfing” is an essential part of seeing our personal relationships survive, and seeing our society sustained. 

Life together is vexing. If we go too long without tending to our interior lives, the frustrations of life with others can make us cruel. Our public life today is led by people who have become miserly because they’ve gone too long without encountering the beautiful to fill their emotional and spiritual well. But we each have more power to elevate our personal lives and heal society in our daily decisions, rituals, and habits. 

In our fraught and divided moment, curiosity, friendship, and the sublime and beautiful—including regular exposure to nature and art—have the possibility to fill us up, nourish our hearts and minds, and guide us toward the good, the true, and the just. These pursuits can calm the selfish aspects of our nature, making us gentler, kinder, and more open to doing the hard work of coexisting with others. And who knows: They might even help our romantic prospects, too. 

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