An open letter to my Republican, Trump-supporting parents.
Dear mom and dad,
I’m writing this just after Joe Biden has been declared President-elect. But this isn’t about Biden, and it isn’t about Trump. This is about us.
For years, we’ve been sliding towards this moment, and this divide. When I was a child, I was proud to be a Republican- not for any specific policy or platform, but because I believed Republicans were inherently good and Democrats were not. This remained the outlook throughout all of my schooling, reinforced by my surroundings in Red-State Oklahoma but also reinforced by what I heard at home. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the like were the voices of my youth, and there was much that resonated with me- a patriotic love of my country, an adherence to personal liberty, and good old Christian morality. Values that still resonate with me.
But a funny thing happens when you leave home for college or ‘adult life’ and find yourself suddenly in close contact with many different people, who hold a plurality of experiences, perspectives, opinions and wisdom. The path to true knowledge is often an uncomfortable one, equally dependent on undoing programmed responses and finding constancy in a multitude of information. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”
My college years encompassed the Iraq War into the financial crisis and Presidential election of 2008; I went from a smug supporter of George W. Bush in 2004 to an ardent campaigner for Barack Obama in 2008. And while these college years are almost universally a time of rebellion, of pushing limits and questioning what you always expected to be true, I also think that by the end most of us have become a truer version of ourselves. This may be expressed in many different ways- in clothes or language or diet or religion…or political party identification.
But here’s the thing- I didn’t become a different person. The D next to my name on a voter ID card in 2008 did not substantively change who I was. I simple emerged from the cocoon with different colors, a different shape. Yet I was still ‘Josh’. Still the same curious, thoughtful son you raised. As much as you may hear otherwise, education doesn’t brainwash us. It is not a monolithic structure with single-minded purpose; I had professors of every stripe, every influence. They each imparted something different. And though there may have been some classes less explorational than others, above all I was taught to think critically, to approach every issue with appreciation and acknowledgement of the external factors at play. I was never taught that I could not question the veracity of any ideology- the exact opposite, as a matter of fact. I was taught that everything should be questioned, that reason should rule the day instead of passion.
None of my professors were perfect, and neither was my own conduct during this time. I swung too hard in opposition at times and could fall into traps of tribalism or group-think. I think this is a dangerous possibility for all of us in our current information age. As I look back, I am deeply remorseful for any and all occasions in which I offended you, or was ungrateful for all you have given me. I am who I am because of the way you raised me and I wouldn’t change that for the world- but who I am today is not the miniature version of yourselves you remember from my childhood. I have grown into the man I am not as a rebuke, but as a transfiguration of those childhood values into an informed adult. I still believe in unconditional love, in showing kindness to strangers, in the equal rights and dignity of every human being, in the sacredness of personal liberty, in our duty as stewards of this marvelous natural world.
I believe all these things, and I voted for Joe Biden.
I did not cast that vote because I am a brainwashed dupe who wants to destroy the country for Marxism. I did not cast that vote because I want to “tell everyone else how to live their lives”. I did not cast this vote because I want to kill unborn babies.
And herein lies the crux of our situation.
Because I know without a doubt that this is what you’ve been told to believe by the media voices you listen to. I know that a Fox News channel is on tv the majority of the day in your house, that right-wing facebook and online media is the source of much of your information. I know that these voices have been telling you for months that I am part of an insidious effort to destroy ‘your’ country. I know they have painted a picture of me not as someone with a different yet valid perspective, but as an enemy with a nefarious radical agenda. That anything Democrats support is evil socialism, ignoring the selectively socialistic policies of the Republican party over the years. And right now those voices continue to intimate that the election was stolen, that any victory is illegitimate if it is not a Republican victory. I read these same sources, I see the same headlines and viral memes. Nearly all of them de-humanize everyone who voted differently than you, every perspective that differs from your own.
So it comes down to this: do you believe that I am a brainwashed member of an enemy army? The same son who has demonstrated a clear defiance of authority, who has approached all of life with curiosity and critical thinking, who has tried his best to live by the examples and teachings of Jesus? Do my views on policy make evil?
Or is it possible that I am still the same son, just with different political preferences? You’ve been around me the past few years, in your home and around the family: did I seem evil and destructive?
I write this publicly because I think there are many out there who feel the same way as me. Who have experienced the much-reported polarization of this country on a personal level, and who feel exasperated by this artificial divide. By the alternative universes we seem to be stuck within.
Because it is artificial. We have real differences when it comes to specific policy, but whatever reality is there has been warped, exaggerated by prominent voices on both sides. I am not writing this to intimate that all media is entirely accurate and objective, or that all Democrats are truthful 100% of the time. I am fully aware that there are bad-faith actors out there and that subjectivity will inevitably play a part in journalism- but that has always been our reality. This was an issue for our nascent country in the 18th century and it continues to be an issue today. Our duty as citizens is to consume news media critically, to understand context around political statements and headlines.
When I read a news article, from any source, I am aware of the ways it might play into or against my expectations, or what I desire to hear. I always strive to read a variety of sources with an open mind and critical eyes; in so doing, I see that the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other major news organizations contain individuals who may selfishly seek their own gain above all- and a multitude who approach their job diligently, honestly. The opinion sections contain the largest variance and subjectivity, but the actual reporting done by these organizations is written by journalists who only succeed based on accuracy. It is not an environment where blatant lies or misrepresentation helps them get ahead, because they are checked by each other and reviewed by their peers. Of course they will miss some stories, occasionally get the facts wrong- they are human, after all! But when you look at the whole picture with clear eyes, I think you see that the vast majority are authentic- and the same goes for scientists and other experts. These institutions are designed for verifiable fact to be the ultimate litmus test, for subjectivity and inauthenticity to be exposed.
The problem is, this peer-review happens far more in mainstream media than in conservative media; the conservative media world is insular, and unified in this regard- the news that damages ‘liberals’ and benefit ‘conservatives’ tends to get passed around and promoted with ease, but any news that demonstrates the inverse is suppressed or denied wholesale. There is much more solidarity in the conservative media world than in the rest of the media world, and less self-criticism; this makes it difficult for anyone to be able to discern truthfulness. I think there is much to criticize in the news media world, from the New York Times to Breitbart, but it has to come from a place of honest engagement with the whole. To agree on verifiable fact, before we develop our own ideas of what we should do about that fact. There should be debate and disagreement! We should argue about what policies should accomplish and how we can best make our institutions represent our values, but we can’t do that unless we agree on the common ground we all share.
I worry about where you get the vast majority of your information because I worry that without context and commonly held facts, you can be manipulated by those who want to use your trust for their own benefit. I would say this to any one, and I think we should all be aware of this as we consume news and information in a wild new age. It is something most everyone agrees on- we have to resist those who use their power or position to manipulate us for their own benefit.
People across this nation agree on so much. We agree that we have individual free will, and a right to protection of this sacred liberty. We agree that we should follow the ‘golden rule’ with each other, and treat one another with dignity and respect no matter the color of our hair, the width of our wingspan, or pigments in our skin. But we also agree that we should mostly “stay out of each other’s business”, protect personal privacy, and respect religious self-expression. We think we deserve equal opportunity, a square deal, a fair shot, to succeed or fail on our own. We all want to leave our children and loved ones with a better world than we inherited.
The polarization we all talk about is the difference between how fully we apply these personal beliefs to others- to someone who looks completely different than us, comes from a completely different background than us, believes in a different version of God than us. How sacred is their liberty to us? How valuable is their voice compared to ours? How valid is their success compared to ours? When someone we disagree with succeeds more than us, how do we respond?
You fear people like me who live in big cities are fundamentally different from you, but my personal experience has been that cities are just places where every human being is in constant contact with many other humans beings who contain wildly different characteristics- and through this constant contact and interaction, we tend to fear other a little less, see the similarities in each other first hand and with more intimacy. Looking back upon all of my life in such cities, I do not think the stark rural/urban divide we saw in the Presidential election has to do with ‘liberal group-think’; I think it is a reflection of the strong interpersonal relationships between disparate types of people in those cities. It doesn’t mean that Democrats always do right by every faction of this broad coalition, but that we see our own unity through diversity in the Democratic platform far more than the Republican. And this extends to the generational gap as well, where 18–34 year olds who have grown up in a vastly more interconnected world gravitate to the same coalition.
America is now essentially a ‘majority minority’ nation, with the white protestant share of the country shrinking consistently. Your share. My share. I know this feels destabilizing, unsettling, as if you are ‘under attack’. I know what it’s like to feel like a minority voice, or a small group within a larger, foreign environment. I know that this reality can sometimes feel like persecution for being who you are. I am just as afraid of some of the extremist tendencies in ‘cancel culture’ on both sides, but I also think there is a difference between government intrusion on your personal liberty and your opinions losing popularity in society at large. Societal values do change over time, and this change is always uncomfortable in some way. It was uncomfortable for White Protestants to acknowledge that black people shouldn’t be slaves in the 19th century; it was uncomfortable for White Protestants to grant women the right to vote a hundred years ago; it was uncomfortable for White Protestants to accept an elected leader who was Catholic, or Jewish, or any other faith other than their own. It was uncomfortable for White Protestants to accept the justice sought by Martin Luther King Jr. when he was alive. But essential progress was made in each era, through the necessary discomfort of those who had grown accustomed to elevated status.
What I dearly hope for as we move forward in this current tumultuous time is for you to see me as your son again, and not an inhuman cable-news slander. That I am a human being who values decency in my own life and in society at large, no matter what my political of policy preference may be. But of far more importance to me is that you do the same for the other human beings not related to you by blood; that you see the black man protesting in the streets against his perceived oppression as somebody’s son, just like me. That you see the journalist working tirelessly to expose truth as a human who just wants to do their job well, and not an enemy of the state. That you see those who think an abortion is a tragedy but insist we must respect a woman’s personal liberty and sovereignty not as ‘baby killers’ but as Americans. That you see a wholesome romantic love between two people of the same gender as love, though it may look different than your own relationship. That you see those of us who criticize the sins of our nation’s past not as enemies of the country but as conscientious members of society.
I want you to see all of us- black, brown, white, old, young, long-haired or bald, athletic or frumpy, college graduates or not, democrat or republican- as fellow countrymen and women, engaged in the same beautiful, messy American experiment as you. One party, of Americans.
I love you both dearly. And I am eternally grateful for all that you have done and continue to do for me. Just as I love my country, and am grateful for all who have come before me. But I will continue to strive for this nation to further realize its foundational ideals, to become what our forefathers presciently called a ‘more perfect union’. I will fight for equality and justice for everyone who doesn’t look like me, who doesn’t come from the same background, who practices a different religion or holds different opinions than me- but who is just as American as you or me.
I’ll close with the words of Pope Francis, from his recent encyclical that implored us to embrace universal, fraternal love for each other:
“Together, we can seek the truth in dialogue, in relaxed conversation or in passionate debate. To do so calls for perseverance; it entails moments of silence and suffering, yet it can patiently embrace the broader experience of individuals and peoples. The flood of information at our fingertips does not make for greater wisdom. Wisdom is not born of quick searches on the internet nor is it a mass of unverified data. That is not the way to mature in the encounter with truth. Conversations revolve only around the latest data; they become merely horizontal and cumulative. We fail to keep our attention focused, to penetrate to the heart of matters, and to recognize what is essential to give meaning to our lives. Freedom thus becomes an illusion that we are peddled, easily confused with the ability to navigate the internet. The process of building fraternity, be it local or universal, can only be undertaken by spirits that are free and open to authentic encounters.”
With unceasing love and gratitude,