On a bitterly cold winter day in early 2018, I sat with my grandfather, Roger Seymour, at the nursing home where he would spend his final days. Tears ran down his cheeks as he confessed to me, “I’m afraid for this country. Our president is a fascist.”
This admission from my grandfather, a lifelong Republican, took me aback. We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about our differences, like my queer identity, and similarities, like our rural childhoods, and before I left for the day, he said to me, “I don’t always agree with your choices, but I love you no matter what.” And that’s the way it always was between us. We agreed to disagree about many things, but not about our love.
This September marks the sixth year that my family has celebrated Labor Day without holding a large birthday celebration for my Grandpa Roger. My extended family has drifted in the years since his passing, no longer coming together regularly to talk about our lives, passions, and beliefs over birthday cake. Roger held us together, loving all of us, with our varied ideologies, equally. We miss him.
While the loss of my Grandpa Roger is highly personal, my family is not unique in letting political differences get in the way of our familial connection. Time and again, I hear similar stories from my peers and friends, who either agree to keep certain topics off the table or walk away from their families of origin to keep their own sense of peace.
As America grapples with deepening divisions, many find themselves in echo chambers, surrounded only by those sharing similar beliefs. This has led to growing polarization as the need for informed, value-based civic conversations has never been more critical. This narrowing of dialogue also poses a tangible threat: a weakening of the core principles of democracy and freedom. What are the consequences of losing our ability to truly listen to diverse perspectives and the urgent call to preserve open discourse in our society?
Civic conversation, which to me is any conversation across difference, plays an important role in our society and our democratic process. I grew up in an environment of great political diversity, where hard conversations happened at the dinner table, at football games, and anywhere we encountered differences of opinion. However, in an era dominated by social media and anonymous comment sections, our ability to clearly and effectively communicate our differences of opinion is being eroded. Increased access to the internet allows people to spread vitriol as well as disinformation and misinformation.
Yet in North Carolina, we are voting, sometimes splitting our tickets, in ways that show we are still able to see beyond red and blue. The unaffiliated voter population is growing in North Carolina, having doubled to more than a third of registered voters in the last two decades. People here are no longer loyal to the two-party political system — in the 2020 election, North Carolina reelected Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and voted for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. What this tells me is that we are capable of holding complicated, sometimes conflicting and often nuanced views about a variety of topics.
It is time to start having nuanced civic conversations again. A recent poll showed that Americans are actually more closely aligned in terms of values than how we perceive each other to be. We do have core democratic values in common with one another, and that is where I suggest we start to do the hard work of coming back together.
In the practice of deep canvassing, activists initiate conversations with those who are politically different from themselves, starting with curiosity and listening. Why do our political opponents feel the way they do? What stories have they told or been told about a topic? What are the points of commonality that you can build upon? When you practice active listening, you aim to understand, rather than judge, the person you are in conversation with. To build bridges, we have to start hearing each other again.
To be sure, talking across political differences can be messy, uncomfortable, and sometimes scary. I’ve had plenty of conversations with people who are more left or right than I am and have experienced criticism from both sides. Sometimes this feels like a threat to my reputation, and other times it just feels like a threat. But after more than a decade of hard conversations, I recognize that we won’t always get it right. Some political conversations are unsettling, but occasionally, we may realize that we have more in common with the other side than we thought possible.
If my grandfather Roger were still alive today, I’m sure we would find ourselves aligned in surprising ways, like when we realized we were both interested in writing memoirs. I know he would be proud of the ways that I live out my convictions, even if he didn’t always understand or agree with them. At the end of the day, we would not let our opinions about specific policies or politicians divide us or take away our ability to see one another as people who are trying our honest best.
So, keep having those hard conversations. Keep talking to your family members. Keep making friends who challenge you and make you grow in your own convictions. Remember, a house divided cannot stand. Our families and friendships—our democracy — are at risk when we walk away from hard conversations instead of leaning into the discomfort. It’s time to put down the shovel, stop digging, and find a way out of the hole we’ve dug for ourselves. And the only way we can do that is together.
The opinions and perspectives expressed in NC Talks columns are those of the authors. Submissions have been edited for length and clarity. They do not purport to reflect the views of Carolina Public Press, its staff, board of directors or contributors. To submit editorial or opinion piece, please email email@example.com with a brief summary of the topic, your full name and location. Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? If you find an error or have a response, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are three good reasons to support Carolina Public Press today: we are independent and have no shareholders telling us what to do; our quality journalism is vital at a time when powerful people need to be held accountable; and donating takes less time than it took to read this message. Click here to support nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Send an email to email@example.com.