Can Hillary Come Between Friends?

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Photo: Getty Images

This week the Cut explores the messy, loving, spiteful, supportive, competitive, joyful, and funny sides of friendship.

When Hillary Clinton announced she was finally, officially running for president this month, a series of ultimatums began popping up in my Twitter feed. They fit into two categories: “Unfollow me now if you’re a crypto-sexist who can’t stand Hillary,” and “Feel free to unfriend me if you’re supporting an unethical racist like Hillary just because she’s a woman.”

This shouldn’t have felt new. I lived through the 2008 Democratic primary, when people of similar political persuasions spent months pointing fingers and calling each other racist or sexist based on which candidate they supported. Social media was still pretty new back then, so it was possible to be friends with people in life and not have them be part of your online conversation in any way. That’s changed — along with the fact that, this time around, progressives are fighting about a single controversial candidate, not two alternatives. The recent Hillary posts I’ve seen have both courted disagreement and tried to preemptively shut it down. Even though the election is still 564 days away, people are declaring their views and then encouraging those who disagree to just go away.

Kate Harding, who has been upfront about the fact that she’s voting for Hillary because she’s a woman, says she would love to know where her friends land on the question. “But I would never ask,” Harding says, “both because I think people's votes are sacred, private things and because frankly, I don't want to hear from the Hillary haters.” Her feeds are pretty curated right now, so that vehement Hillary opponents don’t show up. By “haters,” she also means “progressives who don't want to vote for her, and are now reckoning with the apparent certainty that she'll be the nominee,” she says.

Finding out that a close friend disagrees with you about something political can be a real blow. I’m used to figuring out how to ignore political divides when it comes to my family. But my friends are the people I’ve chosen to have in my life, often because I believe we share a way of looking at the world. And so I assume we all agree — until a social-media blowup or a late-night conversation suddenly reveals that we don’t.

In a Pew survey last year, 35 percent of people said that most of their close friends have similar political views. At first, that number seemed low to me. But then I thought about how rarely I talk politics with certain friends. I was once surprised to learn that a friend — someone who would never picket a clinic or shame someone for taking the morning-after pill — identified as “pro-life.” I’m not sure if she does anymore, and I’ve never asked her how she votes. I do know she supported a mutual friend after her abortion, and that matters more to me than the label she uses.

I wonder if I would have been angrier — or more likely to call off our friendship — if I’d learned about her beliefs on Facebook. According to Pew, "38% of social networking site users have discovered through their friends’ postings that their political beliefs were different than they thought." And 18 percent have blocked, unfriended, or unfollowed people who have differing political beliefs. Many of those people are relatives or high-school acquaintances. But some, presumably, are real friends. As Pew notes, "friends sometimes agree and sometimes disagree." That's exactly what the Hillary divide illuminated for me — just how easy it can be to go searching for a “sometimes disagree” moment.

There are some who say that you shouldn’t waste your time bridging political divides because you are how you vote. “It’s been my experience that political viewpoints say a great deal about a person’s character,” wrote Kirsten West Savali at Clutch Magazine, “and once a person’s political views become common knowledge, it’s impossible to separate the two.” I can see where she’s coming from. I don’t want to be friends with someone who can’t understand why the Ferguson protests are important, or someone who believes gay relationships are inferior. But I also don’t want to surround myself with nodding bobbleheads who never challenge my beliefs or push me to think deeper about them. If my friends, who are more alike politically than not, came to different conclusions about how to cast their vote, that’s fascinating. I want to talk to them about it. At the very least, I’d like to remain friends.

How do you maintain a close friendship with someone who has political beliefs you disagree with? Presumably, if they’re a real friend, this person is in your life — not just your Twitter feed — because they add something to it. So you need to start by asking yourself what you do have in common. “It's good to have some connection to people that isn't about politics,” says Reihan Salam, a conservative writer who has lots of liberal friends. “Do you share values or gut instincts that don't directly relate to politics, e.g., do you feel strongly about personal loyalty, are you the kind of person who is inclined to make quiet weirdos feel socially comfortable, are you judgmental?” Friendship is more often built on these traits than on political alliances.

It’s also helpful to remind yourself that you’re dealing with an individual, not an entire party. It’s not fair to make your friend serve as a stand-in for some larger group of people you despise. Listen to what they’re actually saying. Be curious, not self-righteous. And of course, all of this is easier if you’re talking about it in person rather than via Facebook comments. It’s hard to imagine saying to a friend, “If you disagree with me, you can just hang up the phone right now.” That’s not how real-life friends do things. Even when they disagree about Hillary.