FEATURE: One Family, Divisible
In today's political climate, how do families in quarantine navigate political tension? A collaboration with the YDN Data desk.
On a hot day in Irvine, California in September 2020, Julia Wang ’24 and her mother sat outside a café waiting for a table. Wang, a rising sophomore who is on a gap year, brought up the work she does with Diversify Our Narrative (DON), a national grassroots organization advocating for racial justice in school districts. Although this wasn’t the first time they spoke about racism since the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, Wang felt that this conversation was “the best one.” Previous conversations about implicit bias, racism and the phrase “Black Lives Matter” had left both Wang and her parents feeling unsatisfied.
“Before, we were both struggling to be heard,” Wang said. “[My mom] had good questions and felt attacked by all the aggressive ‘Black lives, not all lives’ on her social media, and I didn’t have good answers at the time. But at this conversation before dinner, I had been in DON for a bit, so I knew more — and we both had the time to really listen to each other.”
For many college-aged students, the events of 2020 came at a significant juncture in their lives, when they are forming their own political opinions. As many students spend more time than ever with their families due to COVID-19, familial political divisions have had tangible, everyday implications.
For some families with mixed political beliefs, this has led to deeper conversations and better understandings of each other’s points of view. In other cases, the divisive nature of political dialogue in the United States has led families to avoid topics that might incite disagreement. In a year unlike all others, Yale students are exploring these complex dynamics and seeking paths forward.
DEVELOPING POLITICAL BELIEFS
Ever since her political awakening began in middle school, Wang has been shifting ideologically to the left — diverging further and further from the political views of her parents, both of whom are longtime Republicans and voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020.
Wang grew up in Tustin, California, with her parents and younger sister. Her father immigrated to the United States from Taiwan and both her parents have been small business owners and Republican voters for as long as she can remember. Although Wang doesn’t recall being aware of politics early in her life, she pointed to her school and her friendships with peers in the LGBTQ+ community as being “influential in shaping her political views.” She also described her AP Government class in her senior year of high school as having been a pivotal experience that encouraged her to think critically about politics.
“I was doing research for it, I was reading articles, I was listening to NPR News Now every morning on my drive to school, staying informed,” she said.
In July 2020, one of Wang’s acquaintances invited her to join DON. Within DON, Wang has spearheaded the STEM curricula creation and educator outreach programs. She credited the organization with deepening her understanding of racial justice and racism within the education system. Wang also said that her conversations with peers at Yale — especially with those who had different upbringings — have broadened her political horizons.
Now, despite growing up in a conservative household, Wang describes herself as a moderate liberal who is “slowly becoming more liberal.”
In the last four years, media outlets have circulated countless articles about handling familial political divisions. There’s a sense that the state of politics under the Trump administration, particularly, has tested mixed-politics families. As Kiley Bense ruminated in The Atlantic in 2018, “For so many events in political life, two unreconcilable accounts unfurl in parallel, and which story you trust seems to say more about your identity than it ever has before.” While the tensions that arise from political divisions in families may be common knowledge, the reasons for these gaps are much less understood.
Recent studies shed light on how political beliefs are transmitted within nuclear families. A 2020 journal article by researchers Peter Hatemi and Christopher Ojeda found that successful transmission of political views from parent to child happens less than half the time. Hatemi and Ojeda assessed whether children could accurately perceive their parents’ political affiliation, and whether those children adopted their parents’ political views.
Hatemi and Ojeda found that 46-53 percent of children both correctly perceived their parents’ politics and adopted the same political views.
So what are the factors that influence the development of political beliefs within a family? In a 2013 study, Oxford associate professor Elias Dinas observed the shift in children’s political beliefs from childhood into adulthood and noticed an interesting paradox. Politically engaged parents were more likely to have politically engaged children, but politically engaged children were also more likely to change their political views from the ideology with which they were raised. This is the case in the famous example of former national security advisor and prominent Democrat Susan Rice and her conservative son John Rice-Cameron.
Down the road, politically curious children are also more likely to revise their views as they interact with the events of their time, Dinas found. Their “politically aware” upbringing manifests in unexpected ways and makes them more susceptible to new ideas and events in early adulthood. Dinas also notes that early adulthood is a turning point for many, as people begin to inform themselves on political issues independently from their family.
Sarah Eisenberg ’24, a first-year in Davenport, has parents and an older brother who immigrated to New York from Ukraine in 1992. Eisenberg has noticed that “a lot of people who have escaped communist countries fear that the US will become socialist and then communist.”
Though Eisenberg was raised in a conservative household, high school experiences began to put her leftward-shifting views in contention with her family’s politics.
“I took a sociology class, and that really changed everything for me,” Eisenberg said. She recalls learning about research into unfair policing and the “doll tests” conducted in the 1940s that found that most Black children preferred white dolls over Black dolls. She noted that this class, and her conversations with classmates, helped inform her views around racial inequity and systemic injustice.
M. Kent Jennings and Jan W. van Deth’s 1989 study underscores the importance of social and political events that occur during young adulthood. “Young adulthood is the time of identity formation. It is at this age that political history can have a critical impact on a cohort’s political make-up,” the authors write. They note that while political orientations are always malleable, the events and perspectives that people experience during young adulthood tend to partially crystallize their political beliefs. Thus, the impact of formative political experiences during youth can have a dramatic impact on their political views in the future.
Colin McCloskey ’20 has become more politically involved with age. He saw the 2016 election in his first year at Yale as “an awakening point” that propelled him and his father to take more active roles in the political process. Ideologically, McCloskey takes after his father — a liberal from California. His mother, a moderate, comes from a large, predominantly conservative Irish Catholic family. McCloskey describes his mother’s family as “single-issue voters” with religiously conservative views on abortion. Growing up, McCloskey spent lots of time with this side of his family and saw many political discussions up close.
“I think I’ve always had a slightly better glimpse into more sides of the country and the country’s political beliefs than a lot of people,” McCloskey said. “That has maybe prevented me from being more extreme in my beliefs.”
Like McCloskey, Gabe Broome ’23 took intentional steps to increase his engagement with politics. As a child growing up with his immediate family and grandparents near Meridian, Mississippi, Broome identified as a libertarian — consistent with his grandfather’s beliefs.
Yet, at the beginning of high school, Broome downloaded an app and began reading the news more frequently, determined to get “outside the echo chamber.”
“I exposed myself to broader political opinions. A lot of social media definitely at first too, just following different people who weren’t just all conservative pundits and reading what other people had to say and then comparing that to news I read,” Broome said. As his views became more left-leaning, Broome felt somewhat at odds with his conservative hometown.
“I definitely didn’t agree with a lot of my classmates,” Broome said. “And so especially when I was younger that was hard. It was hard not to fit in.” Now, at Yale, Broome has found that he has shifted further to the left as he encounters more liberal classmates and ideas than he had in high school.
There is some evidence to support the commonly-held belief that going to college makes people more liberal. Eisenberg notes that her father has chalked her political shift to the left up to the “liberal bias” in education. Wang and McCloskey both shared that they have encountered many students more liberal than themselves in college.
Wang feels that her parents’ political views have only deepened her understanding of political issues. “Because my parents directly have a view that contrasts with mine, and I of course care about them and value their opinions and their experiences, I definitely see where they are coming from,” Wang said. “That makes it harder for me personally to make a decision about what I believe, but it makes my understanding much richer.”
Similarly, Broome feels more secure in his beliefs now, even though his new political identity puts him at odds with his hometown and his family.
“I feel pretty solid in what I believe because I feel like I came to that conclusion myself,” Broome said. “It makes me feel more rooted and secure in how I feel now.”
Beyond the richer understanding Wang feels like she’s gleaned from her experiences with parents who hold different political beliefs, she also notes the intentionality of her political affiliations: “I’m not able to just vote blue down the ballot. I’m just very uncomfortable with [that],” Wang shared. “I feel like I have a responsibility to my parents to… seriously consider the other point of view.”
Wang also spoke about her experience with having a close family and its impact on political conversations. “I have a really good relationship with my family, so I’m blessed in that way,” Wang said. “They… are willing to listen which is great.”
Eisenberg acknowledges that political tension within a loving family unit can be disconcerting. “It made me more confused,” Eisenberg said. “[My dad] is my favorite person in the world and I think we have the same personal values… and like the same things.” Eisenberg notes that she and her father are both inquisitive and sensitive people who both “really value education, learning, and understanding history.”
The closeness Eisenberg feels with her father can make contentious political conversations more fraught and personal. “I feel like my dad thinks that I think he’s stupid,” Eisenberg said. “I’m always reminding him, I do not think you’re stupid. I value your experience. You came here for a reason to this country and I 100% think you’re bright and I have so much to learn from you.”
“We definitely have had fights,” Eisenberg said of her interactions with family. “It switches from fighting sometimes, to me just being silent and being like, ‘I can’t handle this right now.’ But also being patient because this has been a tough year and at some point, it feels like we don’t have control over this, so the best thing we can do is stay informed and just continue talking about it, but knowing that sometimes we are just going to disagree.”
Broome said that although his family doesn’t often have big fights, their differing political views do create tension within the household.
“[Political conversations] go… as well as they can,” Broome explained. “I don’t think anyone’s mind [is] changed at the end of the day, but I think everyone feels better being heard. But they aren’t bloody and ugly.”
While research and individual experience can make some young people feel more confident in their beliefs, it can also create additional internal conflict. Eisenberg has struggled with some of these feelings. In conversations with other liberal children of conservative immigrants from the USSR, Eisenberg has noted common threads.
“Our parents say that we are brainwashed,” Eisenberg said. “It’s a tough thing … Our parents came here so that we could get a good education and then we end up getting that, and they say we’re brainwashed.”
Eisenberg finds it difficult to hear her dad make such an allegation. “He of all people knows what censorship, propaganda and brainwashing are and for him to say that I’m brainwashed … There’s a lot of weight to that statement … It makes me worry, like what if I am brainwashed?”
Navigating her first year at Yale and having political discussions during a contentious year — all while studying remotely from her home in Brooklyn — has been difficult for Eisenberg. “When I fight with my parents, I have to think in advance: ‘Will this make my life harder just being trapped with them? Do I want to start this now if they’ll be mad for the next few days?’” Eisenberg said. “It’s definitely just harder to have personal space and just take time to wind down for all of us.” When “there’s so little control during this time,” she noted that the increased media consumption and the plethora of newsworthy stories this year have been overwhelming for her family.
Both Wang and Eisenberg discussed the disconnect they notice between the way that the media often represents Trump supporters and the conservatives they know and love in their families. “When I think of a Trump supporter, I think of a very zealous person,” Eisenberg said. Having family members who support Trump reminds her “that average people can also vote for him.”
Wang can point to a handful of moments growing up when she became acutely aware of the heightened emotions surrounding the political divisions in the country. Walking down the hallway of her performing arts magnet high school in California on the day of the 2016 election, she casually commented, “I don’t hate Republicans.” A friend pulled her off the staircase and drew her into a corner shushing her. “You can’t say that in the hallway!”
“We were talking in hushed voices like it was some big secret that Republicans exist,” Wang said in an interview. “Like it’s something you can’t say out loud.”
In high school, and in the media, Wang got used to hearing phrases like: “All Republicans are white, uneducated, racist, terrible people,” Wang recalled.
“One of the cool things about growing up with parents who are more conservative is that I definitely see their viewpoint,” Wang said. “I definitely see their arguments and I don’t just write it off as being bigoted or uneducated. Because that’s not true. I know tons of kind, educated Republicans. But I also know a lot of not kind, uneducated Republicans.”
Even as a new presidential administration enters into office, the disagreements and tensions within the country — and within families — will likely only continue.
Though Wang foresees her younger sister, 15, contributing to political discussions with her family in the years to come, she anticipates that the conversations “are pretty much going to remain the same.”
“I think I’m not changing my parents’ minds anytime soon,” Wang said. “But I’m definitely learning a lot from them and they are definitely learning from us as well.”
“As politics in the US has grown more divisive and vitriolic, our family has stopped one step short of where political discussions would have been previously,” McCloskey said. “We will still have the political discussions but it’s so clear that nobody is going to be able to change other people’s minds… we want to make sure that we can remain family and still talk.”
“I definitely think my family won’t be torn apart [by political disagreements],” Broome said. He thinks that avoiding certain topics will be helpful in keeping the peace in the future.
McCloskey thinks that there’s value in continuing to have political disagreements with family members. “Younger people are definitely going to be the future of this country,” he said. He tries to have political discussions even with family members who have set political views, if there are people around who may be more open to new perspectives. “The only way you are ever going to learn to think critically and form your own ideas about politics or about anything else is to be around interesting discussions about them and to be educated about multiple sides to any issue… You need to see multiple viewpoints on something.” McCloskey finds value in sharing differing perspectives in political conversations for the “silent listeners” in the room.
“I definitely think there’s always room for growth and rethinking your views,” Eisenberg said. “Your views aren’t just black and white… you can change your views. And I mean, I’m not saying my parents will become liberal tomorrow, or that I’ll be a devout Republican soon, but I think there’s compromise and people change. For better or for worse, I don’t know.“
Eisenberg believes that conversations with her family will be better in the future — if only due to more distance between them. “I think I just need more time away from them now and I think things will get better with time and space. I think if I have that… that’ll give me more motivation to have more extensive conversations with them,” Eisenberg said. “In college, when I have the opportunity to be away from them, I think that I can have better conversations when I come back. It’s like absence makes the heart grow fonder, but also it will just give me the strength to take on these topics.”