In politically mixed friend groups, a lesson for navigating differences

What these longtime friends talk about is as telling as what they don’t


This story is one of three narratives in our “The way we live politics”package; check out its companion pieces about marriages that cross party lines and young voters who navigate generational differences with their parents.

Laura Phelan and her friends have been meeting for breakfast every week for the last four years. The owner of their favorite spot, Gracious Plenty Bakery and Breakfast, makes the best biscuits Laura has ever eaten, she says, “and I had a Southern grandma.” The top left corner of the menu reads, “All Are Welcome, Hate Has No Place Here,” which feels fitting to Laura, “this Southern biscuit place with this progressive message.” Her friend group that gathers here is split politically—three lean left, three right.

They’ve met, all six women, only a few times since March, when their kids’ schools closed and the pandemic ramped up, when wearing a mask became a political litmus test, and when they unconsciously sorted themselves into two groups: those hunkering down at home, and those not.

About a mile south of Gracious Plenty is Roswell Presbyterian, where the friends, most in their 40s, and their families have attended services for a decade. The oldest church in the city, it offers some insight into the United States’ inclination to divide itself: Galleries built to seat enslaved people still loom above its circa 1840 sanctuary, which would later serve as a Union hospital during the Civil War.

Laura describes her church in its current incarnation as progressive. It allows LGBTQ+ marriages, women can hold leadership positions, and, this summer, two of its pastors joined Black Lives Matter marches. The congregation has taken a cautious approach to reopening; phase 1 started in September, meaning outside services with limited attendance, social distancing, mask-wearing. A friend of Laura’s serving on the church’s governing body told her about the plan to reopen: You know how the country is divided right now? It’s pretty much like that at church, too.

Laura Phelan

Photograph by Eley Photography

Laura supported the suspension of services but says the absence of in-person fellowship—with people from different generations, with different ideologies—has been difficult. “Not having that right now, because it’s not safe to gather, is so hard on us in terms of retreating to our echo chambers,” Laura says.

She sees her small group as a microcosm of her church family—and perhaps a microcosm of the country, politically. One woman casts her vote according to convictions related to social justice and climate change; another is fiscally conservative and supports whichever party’s tax plan makes most sense for her family.

All six women live in the Sixth Congressional District, which was a Republican stronghold for four decades—until 2017, when suburban women helped power Jon Ossoff’s campaign against Karen Handel through what would be the most expensive U.S. House race in history. Ossoff lost, but his margin of defeat was surprisingly thin, less than four points. (The district would finally flip for Lucy McBath a year later.) Laura considers herself a moderate, but she served as a precinct captain for Ossoff’s campaign, which, for a while, some of her Republican friends wouldn’t even discuss.

“You know how it is in the South,” Laura says. “So many people for so long were like, Well, we just don’t talk about that.

But the 2016 election season changed something for her. “We’re sick of going to cocktail parties and talking about nonsense when we really feel like this is important,” she says. “I feel like more and more people find it hard to just make small talk when their whole lives have been turned upside down.”

Her friend group has weathered differences in various members’ ideologies over the last four years in part because of a shared Christian faith and in part because their lives are so interwoven. “We know we don’t all agree, but we are here because we’re supporting each other,” Laura says.

That’s not to suggest that they’re all on the same page when it comes to supporting each other’s choice for president. In fact, they say they don’t even know what page the others are on.

Laura says the women share a bond so deep it allows them to “transcend” certain issues. There are other potentially divisive topics on which they choose to remain mum. That explains why, when I ask the group of six friends who they plan to vote for in November, no one answers.

The friends, all white women, sit in socially distanced lawn chairs outside a gray stucco home with a big Palladian window in a Marietta subdivision. There’s a chemist-turned–stay at home mom of four, a violin teacher and small business owner, a freelance writer, the director of arts and worship for their church, another stay-at-home mom, and an account executive for Dooney & Bourke wearing a blue-and-pink striped maxidress and flip-flops. All six families, 16 kids among them, camp in the North Carolina mountains every year and meet for a supper club every few months. A few of the women run road races together.

After a long pause, a few of them speak. They say they probably can guess each other’s chosen candidates, but they haven’t told one another—or, for that matter, their husbands or their children.

“That is very personal and private. There’s a reason you’re at a ballot box by yourself,” Laura’s friend Katy Vogel says. “That allows for freedom and dialogue. I just think putting a label on yourself means that you stick with that label, and that’s not my jam.”

Another friend, Betsy Jackson-Homer, says she and her husband voted differently in 2016, which was a source of some contention for a little while, but “it’s just not something that I talk about, even in our marriage. I think I know how he’s voting, but I’m leaving that up to him,” she says.

Betsy Jackson-Homer

Photograph by Eley Photography

This group is part of the elusive, coveted “suburban woman” voting bloc that helped Trump win office in 2016, then flipped the House to Democratic control two years later. Both parties have pinned their hopes on them this season, aggressively vying for their attention. See Biden’s commitment to naming a woman as vice president or Trump tweeting to “suburban housewives” that his opponent will destroy their neighborhoods.

Laura and friends look similar to what many imagine Trump is referring to when he promises “the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that [they] will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in [their] neighborhood.” Because, despite the ongoing suburbanization of poverty and the fact that a third of suburbanites are nonwhite, “suburban woman” is often code for educated, middle (or upper-middle) class, and white—a swingable demographic that for four decades has leaned Republican.

“I think [Trump’s tweets] in some ways signal that his version of what a suburb looks like is a version of what suburbs originally looked like in the ’50s and ’60s, without recognizing that suburbs have changed,” says Andra Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Political Science and Director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute.

The political divide within the “suburban woman” set is widening—which makes successful friendships such as the ones maintained in Laura’s group more rare and more necessary.

“Individuals have to take ownership of how they may be exacerbating the problem,” Gillespie says. “If they want polarization to end, they need to stop polarizing in their personal lives.”

In an experiment conducted by psychology professors at the University of Winnipeg and the University of Illinois at Chicago and published in 2017, participants reported that hearing from the other side of the political aisle was “as unpleasant as taking out the trash.” Just under half of Republicans and Democrats view their opposition as “downright evil,” and about one in five think they “behave like animals,” according to a 2019 study by political scientists at Louisiana State University and the University of Maryland. The same survey found that a significant percentage of voters—enough to equal 20 million people in the U.S.—“agreed that the country would be better off if large numbers of opposing partisans . . . ‘just died.’”

In a Pew Research Center study on partisan antipathy, researchers found one thing everyone can agree on: Nearly three-quarters of the public say the parties “not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on the basic facts.”

Gillespie says this disagreement is manifesting itself in how we record history (or don’t). For instance, Trump floated a proposal for patriotic education and Tom Cotton sponsored a bill banning schools from using federal funds to add the New York Times’s 1619 Project to their curriculum.

“Slavery is a historical fact; its genesis in what became the United States traces back to 1619. Yet we see that undisputed facts are now being contested,” Gillespie says. “And this is happening in real time. With the rise of opinionated news media, there isn’t a uniform story.”

The problem, says Spelman associate professor of political science Desiree Pedescleaux, is that voters today “aren’t willing to do the necessary critical analysis of information to really vote [their] interests.” If a politician says he’s creating jobs, look at what kind of jobs. “Are they part-time jobs offering minimum wage? You can’t support yourself on minimum wage anymore—unless you have three jobs.”

But Pedescleaux says people don’t seem to be voting in their economic interest anymore. “They’re voting their interests all right, but it’s a different interest; it’s me against them or it’s us against them, which is something much more dangerous and insidious.”

Katy Vogel

Photograph by Eley Photography

Sandy Dawson is allergic to cats but finds herself taking care of one that belongs to her friend Kathy Scribbins’s youngest son’s girlfriend; Binx will be with her until his owner finds a new apartment, Sandy explains, as she and Kathy and four others wait on the last of seven women to join their Zoom call. Beth Smith Lindner is the glue in this friend group, gathering other women from PTA meetings, church, and the tennis court, and folding them into the mix.

Beth, 53, is a Libertarian, but she was a Republican for years. The transition was gradual, an accumulation of little things that picked at her until, eventually, “I just stopped understanding the platform; I felt like it changed a lot.” She was in the midst of a divorce when she realized her opinions “had been suppressed. I just realized, Gosh, this is not where I really want to be.

In the last five or six years, she’s found her voice and become a lot more outspoken. She has a warm, welcoming personality and throws great parties—she just got some new wine in from Nassau and jokes that she needs help cleaning out the wine cabinet.

Some of the friendships in the group are as old as the women’s children: Beth met 58-year-old Julie Ethridge at the pool while she was pregnant with her twins. (Julie’s boys turned 22 this year.) Tip Tucker Kendall, a 45-year-old nonprofit manager, is the youngest of the group. She played on a tennis team with a few of the women until she moved to Tucker two years ago; she still considers them her sisters, mothers, mentors. The group is composed of three Republicans, two Democrats, a Libertarian, and an Independent; four of them will vote for Trump and two for Biden. (One is unsure.)

Sandy is one of the two women who identify as Democrat. She calls herself a “faithful liberal” yet voted for Jill Stein in 2016 and says she can’t vote for Biden in November—because she’s convinced he has Alzheimer’s. Plus, “the progressives will be running the country, and he’ll be the puppet,” she says. “That scares me to death.”

Kathy, 63, was hesitant about voting for Trump in 2016—“just all the situations that he put himself in with womanizing and all that kind of stuff”—but now says voting for him was one of the best decisions she’s made. She echoes Sandy’s fear that Biden would be a puppet in Nancy Pelosi’s hands, which, in her mind, is one step closer to “progressive socialists” gaining control.

“It terrifies me, what I see in this country,” Kathy says. “More people are buying guns, where, they can’t even keep up right now because people are scared. They are scared to death because of what they see in the media. It’s unbelievable.”

Julie says she doesn’t like the names Trump calls people, like Sleepy Joe. “I wish he would be nicer,” she says. “But that’s his personality.”

Journalist Anne Helen Petersen might describe these women as “Ivanka voters,” a term she coined to describe pro-Trump women who find his language and behavior indefensible but don’t feel that it’s their responsibility to defend. Like “Ivanka Voters,” they prefer to steer clear of politically divisive conversations.

“I have to be careful about what I say; as a Republican, I have heard so many people say, I cannot talk about it, because if I do, I will be verbally abused,” Kathy says. “I usually keep silent, because I feel like freedom of speech is not on the conservative’s side.”

Tracy Turner, 51 and an Independent, is the only Black woman on the Zoom call. She says she voted for Trump in 2016 and hasn’t yet decided if she will again. “It’s really hard in my family, because if I’m not with Black Lives Matter, then I have a situation that is kind of like what Julie describes; now, I have to deal with the ridicule of, Well, why aren’t you? Because you’re Black,” Tracy says. “To me, all lives matter. I’m in the middle of that. I have a police officer as a son, but he’s also a Black boy.”

Tip, who interned for a Republican Senator in college but now considers herself a Democrat, is fiscally conservative and socially liberal. As the parties have drifted further apart, she says it’s been harder for her to find a home. She quips that election years are as hard to navigate as college football seasons. She and her friends agree that the media—which they all say they deeply mistrust—is to blame for driving society to political extremes. Tip says the bombardment of polarizing news is overwhelming.

“You cannot get away from it,” she says. “And I think we’ve had to live with it in a way that we didn’t have to live with it 20 years ago, when the nightly news was the end of your political lesson—that was the end of politics for the day. Now, it is in your face all the time.”

She says the result is a state of constant defensiveness. “You’ve got to go into battle if you’re going to open your social media feed.”

Ella Wilson and Elizabeth King each were navigating divorce and single motherhood when they met at their daughters’ daycare seven years ago. “I feel like a disaster—wait, you’re a disaster, too! Can I get your number?” says Ella, laughing about how they became friends. “Thank god we had each other, because that’s a lonely, isolating feeling to have everything blow up and then suddenly, you’re doing it all on your own.”

They bonded quickly—and, for one reason, surprisingly. Ella is an unlikely Democrat, and Elizabeth is a conservative-leaning Christian. “I didn’t have a single influence that I can think of that was liberal,” says Ella, a 40-year-old copywriter who lives in Gainesville, a few minutes from where she grew up. “I mean, that was a bad word in the Bible Belt.” She says being the only liberal Democrat in her circle of close friends has made her good at “deflecting and keeping the peace.”

Elizabeth, a 39-year-old HR training and development specialist, grew up a self-described “army brat”; she and her family were living in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. Elizabeth’s politics center in part on the fact that she is anti-abortion, which, she explains, is not only a moral issue but a deeply personal one: She had a stillborn baby at 27 weeks.

She describes herself as an evangelical Christian, with a disclaimer: “I think, sometimes, people think that means rightwing, straight–party ticket type of personality.”

Ella is pro—abortion rights, but her number one issue is universal healthcare. She jokes that she “would vote for Satan himself if it meant that everybody in the country could have quality healthcare.” When Elizabeth suggests that universal healthcare could turn into socialism, Ella responds, “I don’t care if it does.”

Despite their differences, they act as sounding boards for one another when it comes to parenting. Finding common ground is just as much for them as it is for their children. “You don’t want to go out of your way to teach your own children to be crazy about the same things that you’re crazy about,” Ella says. “I want to set them up to go out into the world and not make fools of themselves.”

The two women are learning to school their daughters on politically divisive topics in ways that don’t undermine an opposing worldview, because, Ella says, “screaming at people that they’re wrong has never changed anybody’s mind in the history of the world.”

Elizabeth agrees: “If you want to be heard, you have to learn to listen.”

This article appears in our November 2020 issue.