When news finally arrived last Saturday morning that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had been elected the 46th president of the United States, here is a non-exhaustive list of the things I wanted to do, in no particular order: Run out to the street with fists pumping, dance a jig, bang pots and pans, pop champagne, happy stomp, shout in jubilation to the heavens, fall to my knees and weep with happiness, kiss my husband, kiss my children, kiss the American soil that was soon to be delivered from the tantrums of a Twitter tyrant, pray a prayer of thanksgiving, twirl around with my arms outspread, sing. Here’s what I did instead: I went back to folding laundry. As much as I wanted to make a spectacle of my elation, I couldn’t. Not here. It would be too unseemly, too much like gloating, to comport myself thusly under my Republican parents’ Alabama roof.
If you’d told my teenage self that my grown-up self would be (a) a staunch Democrat and (b) living with my parents when the 46th president was elected, I might have laughed in your face. And yet, here we were, thanks to such developments as (a) the realization that I believed in a woman’s right to choose and (b) a global pandemic that had driven my family from our New York apartment in search of the pandemic-proof childcare that only blood relations can be called upon to provide. Here we were, a microcosm of the country’s polarization, passing each other bowls of mashed potatoes at dinner. Here we were, sending money to two different campaigns as we divvied up the receipts for groceries. Here we were, like much of America, muddling along in some form of outward harmony while fearing the end of democracy was lurking in the casual thoughts of the people flipping through channels in the room next door.
We’d spent the election week mostly in a state of détente, watching our separate versions of reality unfurl and the electoral votes trickle in on the cable programming of TVs on different ends of the house, politely sidestepping each other’s orphaned socks and political persuasions. But I knew that it was only a matter of time before rancor erupted. We are not one of those families that maintains its equilibrium by simply avoiding delicate topics; we all share the same genetic incapacity to keep our mouths shut and our thoughts to ourselves, especially when around one another, and we are far too Southern Gothic, as a collective, to not resort to some form of pearl-clutching drama if given the slightest chance.
Still, I was fairly sideswiped when, Friday night over pork chops, I began to be treated to a lecture on the true intent of the Constitution. Had I read the Constitution, my parents wanted to know. Did I care about its desecration, they queried. Soon, before my very eyes, an actual draft of the document materialized and my husband was shooing our two kids out of the room with the promise of Disney as the angsty teenager still lurking in me started to recite the preamble from memory. After which, predictably: Shit Hit the Fan. A little thematic tour of the conversation takes us past the unparalleled veneration the founders had for the individual (which is debatable) to the affront of churches being barred from putting nativities on their own lawns (they aren’t) to Ilhan Omar saying she hates America (she didn’t) to Bernie Sanders hating democracy (he doesn’t) to the idea that systemic racism doesn’t exist (it does). We talked in loud, angry voices about the issues that had turned my parents’ lukewarm support for Trump in 2016 into full-throttled adulation in 2020: how he was building the wall to keep out murderers and rapists and people who wanted to mooch off and bankrupt our system; how he did lower taxes, create new jobs and lower unemployment; how he had gotten us out of hampering partnerships like the Paris Climate Agreement and NAFTA; how he had even forged the Abraham Accords and moved the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a move other presidents had been too cowardly to make and a coup for conservative Christians like my parents who believe it a fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Under a Joe Biden presidency, they feared the country would be turning from its Christian roots and toward a dangerous multiculturalism, with mind control masquerading as wokeness. When I pivoted to family separation at the border, the Trump policy that might seem most unambiguously wrong to those who preach family values, I was informed that the president merely wanted children saved from trafficking — and who could tell who the real traffickers were? Finally, inevitably, and as we always do, we arrived at the perils of socialism, which will apparently be visited upon the American public when a senile Biden gets pushed aside and the radical, socialist “squad” slides into power, just as the Democratic Deep State had planned all along.
In fact, a video of just such an admission by AOC was promised to me (though never delivered), which is how, by midnight, I ended up in my parents’ bedroom in a leather armchair and a state of utter dismay. To prove to me that an illegal coup was under way, I was being shown a DVR’d episode of Hannity in which the disreputable Project Veritas was actually being used as a source (you know you’re in murky journalistic territory when even Sean Hannity says your “reporting” cannot be verified) and in which it was made abundantly clear that democracy was imperiled — not by the vainglorious lies and machinations of a madman — but rather by a concerted conspiracy on the part of Democrats to steal an election that wasn’t rightfully theirs.
Reader, let me assure you I fought back valiantly. I searched out sourcing. I spouted statistics. I pointed out inconsistencies and inaccuracies and questionable tactics. When none of these efforts proved fruitful, I held back tears and swilled red wine, Hannity’s smug face looming in the middle distance. By the next morning, I was hungover on antipathy, wary of further conflict, and ill-equipped to truly process the news that my party had (sort of, mostly) won.
Here’s the thing: I love my parents. They are really good parents! They did all the things good parenting books tell you to do, and they did them mostly intuitively. They are the type of forebears who bring flowers to your recital when you’re three years old, who sit through every single night of your high school play, who immediately start driving to the airport when you call to tell them you’re in labor, their packed bags having sat in the trunk for weeks. They taught me to think for myself, even knowing that doing so might come back to bite them in the ass. They have taken us in for months and never once made us feel unwelcome. They delight in our children and watch them for hours and hours a day with unflagging energy and enthusiasm, making leaf art and cookies while I write articles with which they disagree. They diligently read the directions on chemistry sets and board games and care labels. They oversee remote learning, for crying out loud! And they adhere to our prohibition on discussing politics in front of our kids when we’re not around (as my seven-year-old consistently attests). My dad is an excellent cook, a gifted and beloved surgeon, and a softie who, according to credible reports, sobbed for hours after dropping me off at college, watching from the hotel window to see if he’d catch a glimpse of me going about my new life. My mom is a charmer, an art lover, and a woman of strength and complexity whose advice before my first day of kindergarten was to seek out and befriend any child being ostracized by others. Perhaps my powers of compartmentalization border on psychosis, but nevertheless, I don’t want to give any of this up. I don’t want to be one of those American families torn apart by Trump’s reign of terror.
Someone recently quoted me the phrase, “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” If you don’t believe that white privilege (or possibly any other form of systemic oppression or inequality) is real, then I can see how my politics would not make sense to you. And so I can see how my support of a more equal society might seem to run directly counter to my parents’ life’s work, which was creating opportunity for their (white) children. I know they think it is lunacy bordering on criminality that I might vote in a way that could possibly deprive my own children — their grandchildren — of an iota of that privilege. My mom never graduated from college; needing to work, she dropped out with one semester to go. The Air Force paid my dad’s way through medical school. While it’s true that my parents enjoyed the privilege of being white in America, it’s also true that their sacrifices heaped untold privilege on me. I understand that, and I’m grateful for it. Yet as my daughter watched the first woman to ever be elected vice president speak to the nation on that Saturday night, my dad huffed through the room to take the dog out for a shit. I’m not sure if there was an intentional message in that (the dog’s a puppy; he shits often), but still: The promise of extending the privilege of that high office to a woman, and particularly a woman of color, seemed to me a moment that might transcend politics, a moment to which attention should invariably be paid. To my dad — the much-heralded Father of a Daughter — I guess it didn’t.
Am I complicit? By continuing to break bread with people who drink out of MAGA mugs and venerate Rush Limbaugh and will never truly believe that Biden won the presidency fair and square, am I inadvertently sanctioning the systemic inequalities in our system? Am I failing to adequately demonstrate my commitment to the belief that an unequal society damages everyone in it? I want my children to grow up with a social safety net, with justice rather than unearned privilege, with a deep faith of their own but also deep respect for the belief systems of others. I don’t want them to have things at the expense of other children.
Is there a point at which this becomes a matter of morality more than politics? I don’t know. Maybe? Probably? But I’m not sure disengagement is the answer either. Whether it makes a difference or not, I am resolved to be one of the few people in my parents’ lives who consistently present them with viewpoints different from their own. I can’t help it. They are terribly wrong, but I love them still. I’m sure they feel exactly the same about me.
My parents and I have yet to discuss the outcome of the election, which I know they assume is far from over. In the week since Biden was announced the winner, we’ve discussed the upkeep of enameled bathtubs, whether my daughter needs new shoes, my great-grandmother’s days as a flapper, and how many gallons of oil it takes to fry a large turkey (FYI: just about three). We’ve listened to my son’s halting yet earnest rendition of “Für Elise.” We’ve shared neighborhood gossip. We’ve walked the dog. Yesterday, a Sunday, and quite by accident, we found ourselves driving through a Civil War battlefield. We talked about the rancor, the terrible devastation, as a smartphone audio guide lamented the thousands of empty chairs left forever at family tables by the Battle of Chickamauga alone. You may think I’m making this detail up, or conflating timelines for the purposes of poetic license, but I assure you that I am not. It was a beautiful, Southern fall day, warm and almost cloudless. Between the monuments to militias, our children ran squealing through the grass.
But lurking behind all this familial normalcy, and despite my fears for what it could mean for our nation at large, what I know, as clearly as I know anything, is that we are beyond a point of compromise. There is no middle ground here. “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but to unify,” Biden promised the night he was declared president-elect. “Who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only the United States.”
It’s a lovely sentiment — and compelling in the moment — but if my divided house has taught me anything, it’s that such a sentiment is entirely implausible. Either there is systemic racism or there isn’t. Either humans are responsible for climate change or we aren’t. Either facts are real or they aren’t facts at all. And the impossibility of compromise on any of these issues has freed me from the mental burden of trying to find one. As Rebecca Solnit wrote last week, “The truth is not halfway between climate denial and climate science, and while we know that yelling and mocking don’t recruit people, we also know that abandoning or even softening up your facts doesn’t help your cause; it just dilutes your purpose and its clarity for others … We are not called upon to wage war in this moment but neither are we called upon to offer a unilateral peace.”
There’s a limbo between war and peace, and my family — like the country we call home — is trying to learn how to live there. In the meantime, I’ll keep setting the table for six.