How Is Political Division Like a Marriage?

The answer: both hide abuse.

My old favorite David Brooks continues up his creek seeking a paddle. It is he, who, for some reason, thinks the political divides in the United States can be healed if we would just see them as akin to those in a fractured marriage… and if we would just listen to the advice of marriage counselors. Their books, he writes:

are humbling for anybody who has messed up relationships. But they’re ultimately inspiring for anybody thinking about politics. Repairing a relationship can be a process of transformation. Red or blue, we are stuck together permanently in this country. And as the saying goes, the only way to get out of this mess is to get into it.

Thing is, he papers over the real problem in many marriages and certainly in our political relationships.

And that is abuse.

In relationships, it is spousal. In politics, in its most egregious form, it is racial.

In way too many marriages, people try to keep going by pretending that the battery doesn’t exist. “Oh, I’m just clumsy. I keep falling and blacking my eye.” In our body politic, too, we have pushed racism below the covers, claiming its manifestations result from something else. “Oh, that wasn’t racism. I was just being funny.”

Brooks says that those who are “masters” of relationships keep finding things in their partners to appreciate. We on the right and the left should be doing the same thing, looking for the good in the other side. But isn’t that exactly the sort of behavior that enables abuse and racism. “He may hit me occasionally, but he’s a good provider.” “He may hate my skin color, but he pays a fair wage.”

I believe quite strongly that people and their attitudes and actions can change, but that doesn’t happen unless each of us recognizes our own faults without any whataboutism. We can’t say that our spouse or another race is just as bad as we are and expect the situation to changes. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and our own attitudes. Simply looking for what’s good in another isn’t enough–especially if we are the victims of abuse or racism. If we are the perpetrators, we shouldn’t be looking to the others at all.

The “sacrificial love” that Brooks quotes from Mike Mason turns too often into travesty. Rarely, in a marriage or in a society, are we talking about relationships among equals (one of the assumptions Brooks and those he has turned to for this column assume). Most often, there is a power imbalance. People find all sorts of ways of dealing with that, but few successfully conquer it.

It is not enough to “recommit” to what has been an abusive relationship. If you, in Brooks’s words, “lunge toward intimacy,” you may find yourself pierced by a bayonet. African Americans have been trying that for years, trying to be a part of the larger society, trying to achieve an equal place.

What have they gotten?

Too often, they have gotten shot.


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