The United States of Emotion

Eight months after the election, Democrats and Republicans say it's hard to move on.

Issue

The intense emotions surrounding the 2016 campaign were apparent to me during the last month of the race.

I spent those final weeks criss-crossing the country with the CNN #myvote campaign camper, talking to voters about who they would pick and why. Most people my colleagues and I talked to were deeply set in their convictions about their candidate and easily overlooked any shortcomings. I rarely met an undecided voter.

At the time, I expected that -- like most previous elections -- passions would eventually ease after the race was called and the country had time to process the results. But that hasn't happened. Instead, eight months after the election, it often seems like the most vitriolic campaign in recent memory is still unfolding -- and taking a personal toll on Democrats and Republicans alike.

We recently set up a voicemail and asked you to call in and leave a message responding to this idea:

Whatever your political leanings, we want to hear about how this political climate is impacting your life and your relationships.

We heard from hundreds of you and the messages often spoke to the personal divisions that have emerged since the election with friendships broken and family members no longer speaking to each other. We selected four messages -- two from Democrats and two from Republicans -- and shared them with experts in negotiation and psychology to learn what’s driving the lingering fervor and what could be done to heal the relationships.

This is not a scientific exercise and doesn't represent the feelings of the entire country. The messages relayed anger, loss, sadness and more. But mostly, they demonstrated that people of all political persuasions just want to be heard and understood.

Kathy Gibbens

Nevada City, California

“This election has been like no other, ” Kathy Gibbens said as she began her voicemail. “I didn’t want to go back home from where I live in California to Louisiana for Christmas this past year because I didn’t want to hear about my relatives having voted for this administration.”

Kathy was born in a conservative part of Louisiana, but 25 years ago moved to a more liberal part of California where she says she was more comfortable being herself.

“When it comes to politics and division in our country, and how it plays out on a personal level, we tend to go back to our own habitual patterns of dealing with conflict,” said Daniel Shapiro, a negotiations expert and the founder of the Harvard International Negotiation Program. “Some of us like to avoid it, others like to engage in it. Kathy’s wanting to avoid uncomfortable conversations with her family.”

Gibbens also talks about feeling bullied. She supported Bernie Sanders until the end and wrote in his name on Election Day.

“I finally had to take the Bernie bumper sticker off my car,” Gibbens continued in her voicemail. “I almost got rear-ended at an exit coming off the freeway. I mean just harassment because I had a Bernie sticker on my car. It’s really ugly. It leaves us scared because there's so many people who seem more emboldened to be bullies.”

Paula Niedenthal, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in emotions, said “this bumper sticker thing fascinated me because it’s sort of similar to sports teams.”

“There’s this anxiety about being exposed,” she said. “You have a bumper sticker, it's almost like having a Green Bay Packers sticker and being in Texas.”

We asked our experts to offer advice on how the four callers we feature here might be able to communicate with the other side. For Gibbens, it’s about how to feel safe and communicate with her mom.

“Instead of it being her mom who is the problem, the problem is that there are political differences that are impacting the relationship between the two of them,” Shapiro said. “At least it's worth thinking through what would happen if she did go (to Louisiana), and she articulated to the family, ‘I'll go on the condition that we don't talk politics.’”

There’s always Thanksgiving or Christmas to try again.

Heather Tomlin-Wagoner

Sacramento, California

Heather Tomlin-Wagoner supports President Donald Trump and appreciates his bravado. Five months before the election, she and her cousin, who backed Hillary Clinton, stopped talking because their arguing got too tense.

“I don't blame Trump,” Tomlin-Wagoner said about her and her cousin’s arguing. “I don't blame anybody but themselves. The individual is to blame.”

She has reached out to her cousin hoping to repair their relationship, but says she hasn’t heard back.

“I think it's very easy, when we start talking politics with someone who has a different opinion than us, to get into an experience I call vertigo,” Shapiro said. “Vertigo is when we get so consumed in a conflict situation that we can think of nothing else other than that conflict situation and the ‘evil person’ who is perpetrating it upon us.”

Tomlin-Wagoner sounds angry at times during her voicemail. But according to Niedenthal, she feels misunderstood.

“She's focusing on the fact that people can't listen to each other without tremendous blame or accusation,” Niedenthal said. “She's trying to figure out why this state of anger exists in her and everybody else, and so you hear her attempts to explain that.”

Keith Main

Portland, Oregon

“Since the election in November, I have stopped talking to my mom, who I was pretty close with before the election,” Keith Main said in his voicemail.

He isn’t alone -- I heard countless voicemails from people who ended relationships because of the election.

But why haven’t people been able to move past this eight months later? It’s because, Niedenthal said, we’re not able to sit with our feelings or digest them. There is always something happening that resurrects any emotions we’ve tried to resolve.

“Keith is being reminded all the time, we are all being reminded all the time in the media, of things that allow us to charge somebody or charge an entire group of having made a mistake in some way,” Niedenthal said.

The deeper feeling in Main’s voicemail is betrayal.

“I feel like my mom has always sort of held so close and tight to her values and her religion,” he said in the voicemail. “So when I knew that she was supporting Donald Trump, I thought this doesn't go with the values that she's espoused her entire life. And then as soon as he got elected, I just thought, you know what, her values mean nothing.”

Main is feeling the loss of the relationship, but also the loss of who he thought the woman was who raised him. It becomes an identity crisis, Shapiro said.

“This election is raising questions of identity for Keith,” said Shapiro. “‘What values define me? Who's my mother?’ That's a fundamental core personal conversation that is extremely difficult.”

Shapiro offers a tactic he uses when he helps with high level negotiations in the Middle East. It’s called BAG: Best Alternative to a Grudge. It applies here too, he said.

“In other words, if you don't have this grudge towards your mom, can you envision having some sort of other kind of relationship with her? And would you prefer to hold onto this grudge and lose three and a half, or seven and a half if Trump's reelected, years of your life with your mother?”

It’s always easier said than done. For Main and many of the callers, the grudge has deeper roots than an acronym.

“I feel like I literally cannot speak to her while she's supporting that man who is the President, ” Main said.

Joseph David Rittenhouse

Collegeville, Pennsylvania

Rittenhouse is in an unlikely relationship. He’s a conservative Republican and his girlfriend is a Democrat. They met when he was the head of the College Republicans and she ran the College Democrats.

“We fell pretty hard for each other,” Rittenhouse said in his voicemail. “We've had such a good relationship and challenge each other. However, our relationship collectively has been so affected by this last election. My girlfriend worked very extensively in Democratic politics, and she's been ostracized for dating me, for being around me, and for recognizing the fact that I'm a Republican.”

Rittenhouse said he lost 150 Facebook friends for supporting Trump. His girlfriend has also lost friends because of the relationship, he said. This is what’s known as the “tribes effect,” Shapiro said.

“There's the Democratic tribes, there's the Republican tribes, and the fundamental obligations of the tribe is loyalty, ” said Shapiro. “The fundamental taboo of the tribe is betrayal. Each tribe sees one of their members defecting in a way. Or at least being disloyal to what they believe is the tribe.”

I asked our experts to give Rittenhouse some advice. But both said it was Rittenhouse and his girlfriend who should be giving advice to the country.

“They're a good microcosm for what we should be doing,” said Niedenthal.

Joe and his girlfriend seemed to have worked out what so many others are trying to. The “we” is more important than their individual beliefs.

“There's an optimistic side to this,” Shapiro said. “That to even call in (to the voicemail), it seemed like the callers want a better world. The mere fact that they called in, to me, suggests that they see some sliver of hope that things can be better. That America can do better.”

Natalie Austin and Masuma Ahuja contributed reporting.
Illustration by Nuria Riaza.

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