Red Dad, Blue Son

My dad is conservative. I’m not. For our relationship to survive, we had to stop talking politics.

By Joe Hagan from Reader's Digest Magazine | June 2012

Red Dad, Blue SonPhotograph by Erin Patrice O'Brien
In 2004, I had the bright idea of writing a book about the divisions between my father and me, how they related to the larger national political dialogue. I typed up a sample chapter for publishers, full of scenes from our lives. I made some oblique references about the book to my father, but he somehow came to believe that I was writing an homage to him in the spirit of the late Tim Russert’s Big Russ and Me. Far from it: I was painting him as a modern-day Archie Bunker, spewing harsh opinions from his recliner.

Not long after, while babysitting my nephew, Dad found a copy of my proposal on my sister’s computer while checking his e-mail. My sister called me the next day, apologizing profusely for having left it open on her desktop but also warning me that things were about to blow up.

I didn’t hear from Dad for several days, and every hour that passed became freighted with more dread. For a couple of days, I thought we’d never speak again. When we finally did, it was a tense, emotional conversation. His voice was shaking. How could you think these things about me? You think I’m some kind of bigot? An ignorant redneck? I apologized profusely, nearly in tears.

Given the emotional opera of the election that year, the consequences of our differences felt more significant than ever. It pained me to hear him say that he thought the war in Iraq was justified, for instance, or that women didn’t have the right to choose. In my insular New York world, friends whose parents shared their liberal political views talked about my father the Republican like he had an unfortunate medical condition.

Something had to change in our relationship. I decided it was me.

I forced myself to pay closer attention to my father’s life. While he was occasionally bellicose in his rhetoric, in everyday life, he was a different person. Actually, he was probably the most open and tolerant person I knew, my supposedly tolerant friends included. He had a warm, southern hello for total strangers in my Brooklyn neighborhood, socialized with liberal retirees in his own North Carolina neighborhood, had a gay photographer friend in town with whom he traded camera tips, and spent every Wednesday delivering food to the housebound. It reminded me of the old adage: Liberals love humanity but dislike people; conservatives dislike humanity but love people.

Over time, my dad’s tolerance went from a confounding outlier (he’s a Republican, and he likes people!) to a more complex reality—and a personal challenge to my own biases. My dad forgave me for the things I wrote in the book proposal (the book was never published). It was a quiet and, to my mind, major act of love. If I couldn’t look past my own politics and extend a hand to my father now, who was less tolerant, he or I? And how important to the future of the United States of America was my winning an argument over taxes and deficits with my dad anyway? It was the man I wanted to have a relationship with, not his political agenda.

Bridging the divide required time and patience from both of us. We slowly began to migrate our conversations to new subjects, carefully finding topics that didn’t naturally lead us down the warpath: his interest in photography, the successes and trials of my sisters, home repair, raising children. It was awkward at first, but after a while, I began to look forward to talking about real estate values or the price of heating fuel. And when politics did crop up, as time went by, I noticed we both came to agree on something: that polarization, so corrosive to our own relationship, was corroding every­thing else as well. “I can’t stand to watch the constant partisan bickering anymore,” he told me recently.

So when that night on a South Carolina beach was threatened with a sudden squall of Rush Limbaugh, I took a deep breath and decided only to listen, not to fight. It’s not that I agreed with him. But I knew what was in his heart, and it wasn’t the Tea Party. Mid-sentence, my dad caught himself too. He took a deep breath, sighed. We both just listened to the surf, falling into a temporary spell. When we came to, we were standing in this glorious place, that moon overhead, the whole country at our backs. A father, a son, a real family—a better union.

Joe Hagan is a contributing editor for New York and Rolling Stone. He lives with
his family in Tivoli, New York.

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  • Your Comments

    • Charlie Foxtrot

      Here’s something to discuss:  why do we only have two political parties in this country?  Why do I have to choose between knuckle-dragging conservatism and limp-wristed liberalism?

    • Freethehumanspirit

      Firstly, why can’t people have discussions about politics?  Maybe there’s too much dishonesty and misinterpretations by the media and none of us knows the truth.  For me the difference is simple….. more government intrusion with higher taxes vs. less take home pay with more government control.  I’m sure most will agree that there’s as much greed with the top earners as there is with the no-earners.  Fraud and abuse is just as rampant in government as it is on Wall Street, Main Street and welfare society.  Us older folks who have watched society grow and change have learned through experience that spending money you don’t have is trouble, period.  I have a son and 3 friends of 20 years who won’t talk to me because I said, “how come the democratic Senate hasn’t passed a budget in 3 years when it’s required by the constitution?”  And, “why won’t the spending stop?”  No one knows the answers.  We can only surmise and because we can’t back up our arguments with the facts (instead of media rumors and biased fact checkers), we can’t have an intelligent debate.  Our political choices are far more extreme than the souls of our fellow Americans.   Most of Society believes what it is told, not what it has lived.   Discussing it should be imperative.  

    • Teck Fah


    • Evelady1

      Everyone in the USA should read this article.

    • lemonfemale

      Great article.  On some things you are just going to have to agree to disagree.  But I was thinking: one way to defend your beliefs is to put them in terms of the other person’s.  So when Dad says he is tolerant within a limited area, ask him if it is OK to ban “hate speech” in college or to impose carbon emission limits.  And if son disses the “one percent”, ask him if that includes billionaire Steve Jobs.  His Dad reminds me somewhat of mine.  He voted for George Wallace but you’d never know that from how he treated people.

    • Judy

      Great article, sometimes it takes an emotional confrontation to reach amicable terms, especially between child and parent. We all need to be more aware of other’s feelings and if we can not discuss certain topics in a congenial manner, forego those topics and concentrate on family harmony as the priority. Thanks for the article….

    • julmavec

      his dad is just making a topic which is a hot issue of his younger times and present times  to have a bonding to his son..,that’s a father mostly talk to their son they want someone to agree on his idea a perception of the issue.