family ties political divisions

Family Ties. Political Divisions.

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In the Broe family household, even the mail is divided.

There are separate stacks of political mailers on their kitchen table in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale — one for the pro-Trump Republican, one for the Libertarian, one for the two Bernie-style Democrats. They all live under the same red-tile roof, but with different worldviews, not all of them tethered to reality.

Carolyn Broe, 65, is a Republican and a music teacher who believes a Democratic cabal stole the 2020 election and has been leading the country into collapse. She declares the president a “treasonous hack” running a “disaster” of an administration. Her husband is a Libertarian who considers Ronald Reagan the last admirable elected politician. He questions the integrity of the last election but thinks voters should move on. Their two adult children are to the left of the Democratic Party and are open to supporting socialism. They fear that Republicans are destroying democracy.

Tensions were so high on the eve of the 2016 election that Ms. Broe temporarily moved into a hotel. Her daughter changes the channel from Fox News before leaving the house — and Ms. Broe changes it back. She received a text meant for her son, offering him $250 a week to help turn out progressive voters, and she wrote back: “I am worried this money is coming from Zuckerberg! He is courting communist China!”

Her children — Jasmine, 26, and JeanRené, 35 — wince when she speaks her views. Her husband — Steve Broe, 67, a practicing Buddhist who teaches management and leadership — calls their political differences “significant, but not tragic.” The only thing they seem to agree on is that talk of politics has become what they describe as “triggering,” and the only solution on many days is to avoid talking about it at all.

“I need to get out,” Jasmine Broe said recently, raking her hands through her hair as she sat downstairs while her mother taught a piano lesson upstairs. “I do consider, like, the political atmosphere in the house to be the biggest contributor to my mental health problems.”

Their story would be extraordinary were it not so ordinary in America as the 2022 midterm elections approach on Tuesday.

In a multitude of families, in a multitude of ways, politics is toxic. It strains marriages. It splits sons and daughters from mothers and fathers. Its transformation from cocktail-party chatter to emotional minefield has only intensified since Donald J. Trump left the White House. Americans have long disagreed about politics within families and across generations. But modern politics — inflamed by disinformation and the hostile, at-times violent tribalism of public life — has stretched what had once been fleeting, mild disputes to the breaking point.

The Broes happen to be the perfect embodiment of their surroundings: They are one of the most divided households in one of the most divided districts in America.

Across the country, people today are far more likely to live next to people who share their political views. America’s local voting precincts largely resemble red boxes or blue boxes — each precinct is overwhelmingly one partisan color or the other. The Broes’ precinct in Scottsdale is one of the few exceptions. Among the 3,076 ballots cast in their precinct in 2020, there was a nearly even split: Joseph R. Biden Jr. received exactly two more votes than Mr. Trump did. Just 2 percent of all voters nationwide live in such narrowly split neighborhoods.

The Broes live at the edge of the city of Phoenix, in an affluent and predominantly white suburb. The Stars and Stripes, or occasional yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, wave above garage doors. Overt political signs are more common on the traffic medians of the boulevards than on the front lawns of homes on streets with quaint, often Spanish-influenced names — Paradise Lane, Tierra Bonita, Aire Libre. Still, there have been signs of friction: In the days before the 2020 presidential election, one man stood on a nearby corner waving a long rifle and a Trump sign.

Economics has forced the Broe family to live together. So far, neither Jasmine nor JeanRené has found a job earning enough money to live separately.

On most days, the Broes function as any other family does — like a kind of small business, everyone working to fulfill agreed-upon duties and obligations, amid a steady mix of humor, boredom and love. Old birthday cards they have given one another crowd the fireplace mantel; small squares of chocolate fill the candy dish on the coffee table. The family of four is often focused on a purely apolitical and joyful task — tending the 10 cats they have adopted over the years. Some are former strays that remain too skittish to step inside, while other indoor ones frequently nuzzle up against Ms. Broe and her daughter.

Yet in recent months, as the midterm elections have unfolded in Arizona and as politics have once again become central, partisanship has continued to sharpen and sour their home life. Among the handful of things every member of the family agrees on is this: Partisan media outlets have dramatically altered their perspectives and drawn them further apart. The children blame Fox News. Their mother blames nefarious actors on the left who she believes manipulate the social-media platforms her children use.

“I think it’s being called ‘post-truth,’” Jasmine said one recent afternoon as the family sat in their front sunroom. “It’s like, ‘Unless you’re watching my news, you don’t know what the truth is.’ And that makes me —”

She trailed off, searching for the right word.

Her brother, JeanRené, supplied it: “Nervous.”

Only one member of the family watched the entire debate between Arizona’s Senate candidates on Oct. 6: Mr. Broe. Everyone else had made up their minds already.

Mr. Broe was eager to hear the Libertarian candidate, Marc Victor, and liked his performance so much he decided to vote for him (Mr. Victor later dropped out of the race).

Like his wife, Mr. Broe voted by mail this year in late October, casting his ballot primarily for Republicans. He proudly notes that he never voted for Mr. Trump; his wife proudly notes that she voted for him twice. Typically, Mr. Broe approaches politics with a kind of attitude honed from years of meditating, which he does regularly in a backyard crowded with Buddhist statues. “I could make my points, and it doesn’t change her mind at all,” he said. “And it doesn’t make living here any easier, so it’s just better to leave it alone.”

The family mostly works from home. Ms. Broe teaches dozens of students piano, cello and viola and runs several performance groups. Mr. Broe is trying to start a new small business in addition to teaching. JeanRené designs art on commission. Jasmine earns money with pet-sitting gigs.

Back in 2016, the family had debated, fought over and analyzed every imaginable political issue. Jasmine, then 20, thought that her mother was making an immoral choice by voting for Mr. Trump. Two days before the election, her mother decided to cool off by getting a room at a hotel nearby.

The home’s atmosphere had hardly calmed four years later in 2020. Ms. Broe had only grown to adore Mr. Trump even more. Though she never placed a Trump sign in the front yard, a calendar featuring Mr. Trump was displayed in the kitchen year-round. Jasmine and JeanRené were still frustrated that Senator Bernie Sanders had lost the Democratic primary. Mr. Broe knew he would vote for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate. For months, the siblings had hardly left the confines of their household bubble, but when they could not bear to hear any more talk of politics, they fled to the movie theater.

Not long after the 2020 election, Jasmine was watching a YouTube video on the flat-screen television in the family’s living room. The video explained that the unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud would not change the outcome of the presidential election. Her mother walked by and remarked, “You know that’s just their opinion, sweetie.”

Jasmine, in her own retelling, “lost it,” unable to function for much of the day.

“The last two elections made it so that it was just — I’ve got to get out of my parents’” house, Jasmine said. The reason she has not yet done so, she added, was “purely economic.”

The upstairs television is almost permanently tuned to Fox News, a kind of soundtrack of their lives. For years, Jasmine, who lives downstairs, has tried to surreptitiously change the channel. The network is Ms. Broe’s constant companion after she finishes teaching hours of music lessons each day, the sound of viola and piano in the house replaced with the chatter of pundits. It is the source of countless arguments between her and her children.

Ms. Broe has developed some pride in the family’s disagreements. “We raised them to be freethinkers, not realizing how free they were going to be,” Ms. Broe said. She regularly wonders whether the rest of the country could learn something from her family, whose members have managed to stay together through pandemic quarantines and political turmoil.

But it saddens her, too, that her children do not share her values.

“For me, it does hurt,” Ms. Broe said one recent afternoon. She added of her son, “His friends and people on the internet — maybe people I never met before — influenced him to change from Republican to Democrat to liberal.”

Ms. Broe has changed as well, moving further to the right over the years. She started watching Fox in the Obama era after growing frustrated with “dead celebrity news” on other cable channels, and became enamored with what she described as “Glenn Beck’s patriotism and Bill O’Reilly’s history.” These days, she is mostly preoccupied with the Mexican border and China’s influence.

“They’ve got a plan, and they’ve been extremely successful with their plan to take out Americans — to make us no longer the No. 1 power in the world, to downsize us,” she said, referring to the Chinese government.

Ms. Broe said she is thrilled that Republicans who identify themselves as “America First” candidates appear poised to win several races on Tuesday. For weeks now, she has received mail from them. Some of the Republican campaigns put dollar bills inside the envelopes, and make sure the bills are visible, as an incentive for people to open the letters, many of which make claims of voter fraud. After the pile became too big for the table, she stuffed the mail into several boxes, later taking the money out of the envelopes and using it to make a small donation to the campaign of Blake Masters, the far-right Republican running for Senate.

For JeanRené, the first time he voted for president, he chose a Republican: Senator John McCain of Arizona. In her first presidential election, Jasmine chose Mr. Johnson, the Libertarian. Now, the siblings want to see the federal government take an even more central role, by developing universal health care, enacting stronger policies to limit carbon emissions and passing laws to make it easier for labor unions to organize.

“We really need to protect the rights of women, minorities and L.G.B.T.Q. people,” Jasmine said. Like her brother, she expressed frustration that Democrats had been unwilling, as she sees it, to call out right-wing attacks. They are particularly furious that their mother has bought into baseless lies that Democrats stole the 2020 election.

“I think there needs to be a lot less, ‘Let’s come together and heal,’ and a whole lot more, ‘Call a spade a spade,’” she said. “It’s like the voting strategy now is don’t vote for the other guy.”

Not long before Ms. Broe began her afternoon teaching schedule recently, JeanRené walked in with several bags of groceries, setting them on the kitchen counter as Ms. Broe sorted through her mail. “You went to the market,” Ms. Broe said brightly, acknowledging her son’s primary financial contribution to the household: regularly stocking the kitchen.

The Broes moved into their Scottsdale home before the children were born, after leaving California for stable work and the chance to buy a home they could afford. Ms. Broe was particularly taken with the stained-glass window in the front room. The window is now crowded with old family photos and posters of symphonies she once conducted. In the more than three decades they have lived there, they have left jobs and earned doctorates, closed businesses and opened new ones. They have held on to the kind of middle-class life that draws people to Arizona from all over the country.

They lost some money in the stock market, and Ms. Broe said that she was focused on replacing those savings, “because we want to leave our kids more than the house.”

She added, “And more than medical bills, we want to leave them a legacy of financial security.”

When JeanRené sat down to a lunch of bacon and eggs downstairs a few minutes later, he cringed at the suggestion that his parents were leaving the next generation better off financially. He criticizes their perspective as selfish, saying that while his parents had tried to do well for themselves and for him and his sister, they had supported economic policies, such as lower taxes, that made it worse for his generation.

“Rather than just trying to take care of society, they have made society worse,” he said.

After graduating from high school, JeanRené enrolled in a local community college, largely to save money, and later earned a bachelor’s degree in art from Arizona State University. But he said he was frustrated that the jobs he had applied for after graduating required work experience he did not have.

Mr. Broe dismisses his children’s economic critique as youthful inexperience. He is confident they can have the same economic opportunities that he had, if they work hard enough.

Most of the time, Mr. Broe sidesteps any kind of political debate and often listens to Fox News alongside his wife. “I don’t need to drive a wedge between us,” he said.

What bothers JeanRené and Jasmine the most has been watching their mother’s views being shaped by Republican leaders. Ms. Broe believes Mexican drug cartels are being aided by China to bring fentanyl that looks like candy into the United States, she said, “so that little kids will get a hold of it and they will die.”

When they hear this, her son and daughter do what has become normal now: They ignore her.

“We want to have it out of sight, out of mind,” JeanRené said. “We want to love our parents.”

Robert Gebeloff contributed reporting.