Are You Politically Fluid? The Truth Is More Complicated Than You Think

Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.
Last April, as I arrived for Passover seder at the home of a cousin I had never met, but who was nonetheless my geographically closest relative, I passed a camel walking down the street. We were in West L.A., and my hosts had rented the thing for rides as an activity aperitif to the evening. But even more jarring than seeing a desert animal in the middle of the Southern California suburbs was the night’s theme: Donald Trump.
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Rather, the theme was Donald Trump as Pharaoh — you know, the evil tyrant ruler from whom God helped the Jewish slaves escape, and the villain of the story that Jews gather yearly to recount before dining on a symbolic meal that literally includes dipping herbs into saltwater representing our ancestors' tears. This was not too long after the so-called “Travel Ban” had first been signed, so the Exodus story of refugees trying to find a home was pretty on the nose.
For the occasion, the entire first floor of my cousins’ house had been transformed into a 3-D graphic of political commentary. Tables for a hundred or so guests were set with paper plates that bore the face of our president wearing an ancient-Egyptian headpiece (Photoshopped, naturally). The walls were covered with 3-foot cutouts of the heads of various Trump surrogates, including Kellyanne Conway wearing a pink pussyhat, also Photoshopped. There was a songbook with an illustration of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, titled “Putin on the Ritz.”
Though I am by no means a fan of Trump's, I wouldn't have otherwise devoted a holiday to protesting him. In this room of enthusiastically bleeding-heart California liberals — a group to which I fully thought I belonged — suddenly I was the centrist. Actually, I felt downright apolitical in comparison. But at other times, I've felt thrown to the far left by conversation or company.
Where we fall on the political spectrum at any given moment has a lot to do with the section of the spectrum at which we’re looking. As we transition from family to peer group to coworkers, or distant-family and friend-of-friend get togethers, we take on different roles, and tweak our language and demeanor to fit them. Call it “political fluidity”: the ability to keep your core beliefs intact, while adjusting your MO to fit a new situation. And it just might be what helps us see that everything isn’t so black-and-white — or blue-and-red, as it were.

The need to belong and become part of a group comes immediately after our life-sustaining basic needs — like food, water, and safety.

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Last summer, when the election season was just ramping up, I visited my then-boyfriend’s family. It was a home of Hillary supporters, but the topic of immigration and specifically immigrants speaking English came up, and I found myself on the left side of the discussion.
Where we’d once been simpatico, I was now the “liberal snowflake” of the bunch. I found myself getting heated, and instead tried to focus on setting the table with an embarrassing amount of concentration. My boyfriend rubbed my shoulder, registering my discomfort. He’s been the recipient of many of my impassioned political arguments before and knew that it wouldn’t endear me to his family this time. Eventually, I found the right words in the silverware and said, “They’re all just people trying to make a better life for their families.” The thought was noted; the discussion ended, and later that night my boyfriend thanked me for keeping my geyser of liberal anger to a bubbling spring.
According to Terri Anderson, PhD, who teaches sociology at UCLA, my instinct to tone down my rhetoric was completely human. While images of tense family gatherings and a country divided haunt our current state of the union, we basically just want to fit in — especially when it comes to the people who matter to us. Dr. Anderson points to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a cornerstone of modern psychology: The need to belong and become part of a group comes immediately after our life-sustaining basic needs — like food, water, and safety. "Even though our culture tells us that the most important thing is to be a unique individual,” she says, “Maslow tells us that belonging needs come before self-actualization needs.”
Dr. Anderson even goes further to say that while we may consider ourselves fundamentally liberal or conservative, our identities are actually more malleable. “The self is an imaginary social construct,” she says. “Our self is a product of interacting with other people.” In other words, we adjust according to the mirror that those around us provide. The extent to which we adjust, says Anderson, depends on how important the people are to us, and how much time we spend with them.
So the fact that I would bite my tongue in front of my boyfriend’s family is telling, as he is now my husband, and they are my in-laws. Though I didn’t change my mind on how hard I believe it is for immigrants to assimilate to this country, I did adjust how I made my point. Whereas at the Trump-themed Passover seder, even my most exuberant political argument would’ve seemed timid and paltry.
In both cases, I was able to hear someone else’s views and understand how they came to those conclusions. The meaningfulness of my relationships overran the need to argue. This manifests in other ways, too. I have friends who’ve devoted their lives to the resistance since the election, even quitting their jobs to work for Democratic campaigns, and their dogged work to the left has influenced the way I dance up that side of the spectrum. I spent a Friday afternoon protesting outside a U.S. Senator’s office for her refusal to hold a town meeting. I volunteered at a fundraiser for one of the many special elections. These activities are as much a part of the tapestry of my political identity as are that one time I ate brisket off of Donald Trump’s face, and the other time I silently debated immigration policy with a fork.
Perhaps the tendency to change our language based on who we are talking to — to live in a politically fluid state — can be seen as a way to pierce the so-called bubble. If wanting to fit in makes us more likely to listen and less likely to present our beliefs aggressively, while covering our ears to others', we can see outside our own perspective. Changing someone’s mind may not always be possible, but attempting to walk in their shoes, or take a seat at their table, is a great way to see through to the person on the other side.
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