Blue State Blues: The Empty Chair at the Holidays

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This year, there was an empty chair, so to speak, at our Thanksgiving table.

Not just because my mother-in-law, Rhoda Kadalie, passed away in April. And not because we lost anyone to COVID-19, in the sense in which then-candidate Joe Biden used the phrase “empty chair” a couple of years ago.

No — this empty chair pre-dates the pandemic. It is the empty chair for friends and relatives who are absent because of political disagreements.

I have always had friends on both the left and the right, and I don’t write people off because of their political views. I used to be on the left myself, so I know that people can change their views over time. And even when they don’t, the political differences that persist have to do with the media sources people are exposed to, the other relationships they are in, or the quirks of personality — things that are too private to attempt to change.

There are always a few, both on the left and the right, who seem unable to tolerate those kinds of differences. Recent years, however, have seen a growing intolerance on the left — one that preceded Donald Trump, but became more intense when he won the presidency.

It started, perhaps, in the Obama era, when the man who built his reputation on a speech about unity told followers to confront their neighbors, to “get in their face.”

Obama made the political personal — and it worked, at least politically. But while he won reelection, he never lived up to his early promise to unite the country. Donald Trump rose amid the backlash — but rather try to understand his voters, the left demonized them, and continued to use pressure in personal relationships to suppress opposition. In 2016, for example, some Democrats pushed a “sex strike” against Trump supporters.

When Trump won, against all expectations (including my own), a few liberal friends and relatives reached out to me with questions. They expressed their concerns about what he represented, and I tried to reassure them. One told me that she had been pressured by other friends to drop me completely, but refused. Others simply chose not to talk about politics at all. These relationships have survived the tumult; many have become closer.

Then there were other friends, and even some relatives, who lashed out — even publicly, at times. They accused me of doing, or at least enabling, all of the horrific things, real and imagined, that Trump was said to have done. More than one told me that dropping Trump was a condition of our relationship. Some went so far as to accuse me — an observant Jew — of helping antisemites, speculating (ironically) that I must have done so for money.

With a few exceptions, I have tried to overlook these harsh words and ultimatums. Occasionally, I have pleaded with those whom I love, asking them not to destroy years of happiness over political events that none of us can do much about.

But some will not be deterred — as if they seek gratification from abusing our close connection to exact a political price. I can’t imagine the thrill of that is more than temporary, but the damage is permanent.

It leaves empty chairs — at my table, and theirs. Comparing notes with other conservatives at a recent gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition, it seemed that my experience is almost universal — at least among us Jews, who tend to live in liberal communities.

The question is what to do about it — and the answer may come to us from Alexis de Tocqueville, who anticipated this problem 200 years ago in his treatise Democracy in America.

Tocqueville warned that democratic society could lead to “individualism,” a state in which people retreated from public life and occupied themselves within their own personal worlds. He suggested that individualism could become more intense as society became more equal, and as people (paradoxically) became more aware of minor differences. That, in turn, made a democratic society more vulnerable to tyranny, or to despotism.

The solution that Tocqueville proposed was to form a variety of associations — not just political ones, but social connections of all kinds. In a strong civil society, individuals can still pursue their ambitions, but with “self-interest properly understood,” a feeling for the common good. That, in turn, would make society less brittle.

As COVID recedes, and we come together again, that is something to consider. We have empty chairs to fill.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). He is the author of the recent e-book, Neither Free nor Fair: The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. His recent book, RED NOVEMBER, tells the story of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

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