Friday, December 13, 2013

Is the Political Personal?

I've always been fascinated by the relationship between Republican strategist Mary Matalin and Democratic consultant James Carville. How could two people with such divergent political belief systems ever see beyond their obvious differences and fall in love? How, twenty years after marrying, can they maintain a respectful, loving relationship when their views about the way our government should function are so utterly different? I have a lot of friends with far more conservative political views than I do, but at the end of the evening, I can leave them and their (obviously misguided ;-) ) views behind; my political opinions and those of my spouse overlap enough that I can be sure we won't end up in a toothbrush duel over the merits of Obamacare or the efficacy of the TSA as we get ready for bed.

I've read several romances of late with protagonists on opposite ends of the political spectrum. In the most interesting, Karyn Langhorne's Unfinished Business (2007), Washington DC schoolteacher Erica Johnson and war hero U.S. Senator Mark Newman meet not cute, but antagonistic, when Erica stands up in the middle of a Senate Education subcommittee hearing to protest American involvement in Iraq: "If we weren't spending billions in Iraq, we wouldn't have to debate on cuts that take food from the mouths of our schoolchildren!" The senator, southern gentleman that he is, asks that the protester be treated respectfully—"This is still America... and dissent is not punished with manhandlin'." But Erica won't allow the Senator's good looks, charm, or arrogance to turn her protest into a photo op for himself, insisting on teaching her own civics lesson: that standing up for your beliefs has consequences, consequences that one must be willing to accept. Including being arrested.

Before she's hauled off to jail, Erica tosses a challenge to the irate upstaged senator: "Come to my school. Explain your policies—your war—to my kids. Erica Johnson's fourth-grade classroom. Any time you want. Door's open." Little does Erica expect the cocky, smirking senator to show up at her school, nor does she expect him to offer a challenge of his own: to accompany him on a week-long swing back through his (unnamed) home state while he campaigns during the reelection primary. But neither the white conservative southerner nor the black liberal northerner can seem to stand down in the face of the other's challenges.

Langhorne does a great job presenting the humanity behind the political stances. Both Mark and Erica come off as intelligent, well-informed political actors, though each initially draws on stereotypes and easy put-downs to insult the other's position and to bolster his or her own. Each chapter opens with an epigraph or slogan, sometimes from the liberal point of view ("Waging war to stop terrorism is like using gasoline to put out a fire"), sometimes from the conservative ("If we don't stand up for something, we'll fall for anything"), with neither side belittled nor denigrated. It's clear that both Erica and Mark enjoy matching wits with the other, enjoy being challenged to support their views in the face of doubt. And the physical attraction between them is obvious to everyone around them.

Although much of the narrative's energy comes from the knock-out verbal exchanges between "irritatingly granola flower-child" Erica and "conservative nut job" Mark, I expected that Mark would learn to moderate his views by visiting Erica's classroom, as would Erica after spending a week in fictional southern "Billingham." In order to make their relationship work, they'd have to meet somewhere in the middle, wouldn't they?

But instead of reconciling their politics, the narrative sidesteps the issue of Mark and Erica's differences by introducing a suspense plot that places both in physical danger. Once each's life is threatened, their political differences become far less meaningful, far less divisive. As Erica tells Mark's media advisor, who questions the viability of Erica and Mark's relationship:

"There's more criteria in a successful relationship than what political party you belong to, or what color you are. There's another whole list of characteristics and qualifications. Things like trust and loyalty, having passion for people. A passion for life. It doesn't matter how it's directed. It matters that you both have it, and that you both know that, when it's all said and done, you're willing to work together, to fight together, and to serve the common good together."

Initially, this felt like a cop-out to me: immersing Erica and Mark in danger simply to deflect attention from what really matters—the differences in their deeply-held values. But then I began to wonder. Do life-changing (life-imperiling) events make people hone in on the personal characteristics that underlie a person's values? Might it be a sign of a mature relationship when people can agree to disagree? Or could differences in politics sometimes be a reflection of different means to the same end, not always the sign of fundamental differences in deeply-held values?

It's a little difficult to say for sure in Unfinished Business. The novel ends with Mark and Erica agreeing to "try" to form a relationship, with an epilogue in the form of a newspaper wedding announcement describing them one year on. "I think they fight it out at home.... Then the senator comes in ready to work toward the best outcome. Marriage is all about compromise, and government is all about compromise. So it works for everyone," Mark's chief of staff is quoted as saying. But we don't hear much about any compromises: we don't know where they decided to live (in DC or in Billingham or both), whether Erica kept her teaching job, or whether she still publicly protests when Mark takes a stance with which she disagrees. The only sign of their compromise is their honeymoon in Baghdad, visiting servicemen and women: "they are both very committed to seeing our troops home safely." Have they compromised? Agreed to disagree? Decided never to talk politics? Readers are left wondering...

Have you read any romances with protagonists on opposite ends of the political spectrum? Do such romances tend to downplay political differences? Or do they show the two sides learning to compromise? Or do they argue that politics and the personal don't necessarily need to mix?

Photo credits:
Mary Matalin and James Carville: All Things CNN
Elephant, Heart, and Donkey cufflinks: Unicuffs


  1. I suspect there is a very real difference between tv political rhetoric and belief system. I think of mass media as staged theatre when it political commentators. Yes, jaded.

    Are both sides of the political spectrum truly given equal weight? If so, is that perhaps an accurate critique (maybe reflection is a better word) of today's corporate media?

    If I'm to take Erica's comment to Mark's advisor at face value, should I consider this commentary on how "regular" people should stop talking in politically coded language and get back to core values and stop letting "politics/theatre" dictate the political conversations?

    What do you feel is the author's objective truth at the end of the story?

    1. AQ:
      I don't think the author's take-away message was about the gap between political theater and actual beliefs. I think it was more about the fact that despite political rhetoric, people on opposite political sides should look at each other's characters before they reject them out of hand. Mark and Erica both throw a lot of derogatory names at each other, names that the story ends up asking them to look beyond.

      I think the novel's "objective truth" might be to show that political rhetoric is less important than the content of peoples' characters. I guess what I'm wondering in this blog post is -- are the two really that separable?

  2. Are people's characters and political rhetoric separable?

    Could you expound on this a bit?

    1. "Trust, loyalty, and passion" are the three character traits that Erica cites that she has in common with Mark. She argues that "it doesn't matter how it's directed" (i.e., passion), as long as you can agree to "serve the common good together." But can people with diametrically opposing political views agree about what constitutes "common good"? If Erica is against the war in Iraq, and Mark is for it, they can find common ground in supporting the troops. But what about more difficult issues, ones where common ground is far more difficult to find?

      I recently read an interesting article, analyzing people's personality types and their political affiliations, which suggests that for about 80% of the population, personality matters more than politics:

      "the two large groups are united by their concern with all things as they are in the now. That makes the two groups friendly and status quo leaning by default. An ESTJ born in Brooklyn may identify as a traditionalist democrat whereas an ESTJ born in West Virginia may identify as a traditionalist republican, but both are more likely to seek similar professions and get along if they hang out together. Brain type identification provides a lot more material to predict a person's behavior and views on the world than simple political identification."

      I'm in the 20% of those whose personalties lead them to think about the future more than than now, those who are more invested in changing politics rather than maintaining the status quo. Maybe that's why I'm less convinced by Mark and Erica's relationship than I am...

      Article Source:

    2. I find the article problematic and will it there as it takes us way too far away from your original piece.

      But can people with diametrically opposing political views agree about what constitutes "common good"? If Erica is against the war in Iraq, and Mark is for it, they can find common ground in supporting the troops.

      Actually I don't think they can. If they can't agree on "common good," how in the world could they agree on what constitutes supporting the troop outside of the political flag waving rah rah.

      I'm not sure exactly where we are here. I guess my follow-up question would be is one's political rhetoric actually reflective of one's values or do we get so wrapped up in the rhetoric that we can't see what implementation of said rhetoric leads? Does it matter if one is a political power player aka senator vs. an average Joe? I would answer yes because the power player has the ability to control the conversation & the propaganda as well as craft the laws which will effect the rest of the country. And finally I guess I would say that actions speak louder than words. I can say whatever I want but that doesn't mean my policies / actions reflect my stated values.

      I guess I agree with your initial take. The author took the easier road to get to the end. As far as the author's message, I do think it's one that needs to be promoted as I think the political rhetoric is a distraction.

  3. More sexism and misoginy from the infamous Return of Kings site

    If you haven't signed the petition to remove that site from the internet yet, then please do so now:

    Good news- we got over 12,000 signatures now.

  4. I have nothing to contribute to discussion, but I'm so glad you mentioned this book, because I read about it somewhere ages ago, promptly forgot the author and title, and have been trying to find it again ever since! Adding it to TBR before memory fails me again.

    I really enjoyed In Bed With the Opposition by Stephanie Draven, but although the hero and heroine are working for opposing political campaigns, I don't think their own views/values are really different. And there's Jennifer Crusie's Strange Bedpersons. I did not care for the way it dealt w/the political differences of hero and heroine.

    1. Thanks, Liz. Will be interested to hear your thoughts once you've had a chance to read UNFINISHED BUSINESS.

      Will have to take a look at the Draven. Read the Crusie a long time ago and remember not being that impressed by the way it reconciled the two opposites, either.