Acton Institute Powerblog

Kellyanne Conway and America’s politically fractured families

Kellyanne Conway likely gave her last public speech in her role as White House adviser on Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention. The Conway clan’s political divisions mirror the growing bitterness that has become ingrained in families nationwide as America becomes more politicized, more secular, and less tolerant of philosophical diversity.

The Conway family’s carnage has played out painfully on social media. Kellyanne Conway distinguished herself as a pollster before guiding Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign. She has served as one of his closest, and longest-serving, advisers. Her husband, George, a prominent NeverTrump Republican lawyer, took the couple’s political differences public on Twitter so stridently that Kellyanne called his behavior “a violation of basic decency, certainly, if not marital vows.” Their 15-year-old daughter Claudia – a self-described “radical agnostic liberal/leftist” – won media adulation for attacking her parents online. She charged her mother with being “complicit” in the death of Herman Cain, posted screenshots of the family’s private texts, and accused both parents of “physical abuse.”

Kellyanne announced Sunday that she will step away from her post at the end of the month to give her family “less drama, more mama” – perhaps the first time a White House official actually resigned over family issues. George likewise withdrew from The Lincoln Project’s anti-Trump efforts. The news prompted Claudia to boast, “Look what I did” and tweet that she’s still seeking legal emancipation from her parents.

She has, in effect, substituted politics for her family. At one point, Claudia Conway literally asked her political hero, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to “adopt me.” Alas, she is not alone. Nearly one-quarter of people who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 said they stopped talking to a friend or relative because of politics. Others have cut family gatherings short or skipped them altogether to avoid political clashes.

As everyday life has become politicized, and virtual “communities” replace reality, political differences take on perilous undertones. Fully 62% of Americans say they have opinions they are afraid to express publicly, according to a Cato Institute survey. Their fear is not misguided.

Antipathy toward people of opposing political views is the most explosive force in American civic life. Americans now discriminate against members of the other political party “to a degree that exceeds discrimination based on race,” researchers Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood found. Their survey revealed that 80% of partisans would award a scholarship to a less qualified member of their own party over a more qualified member of the opposing party. Should someone sneak through the academic vetting process, he’s still not safe. Cato found that 50% of strong liberals and a third of strong conservatives support firing someone who made a donation to the opposite party’s presidential campaign.

More alarmingly, viewpoint discrimination increasingly bleeds over into political violence. The Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group found that 21% of Americans say that violence is justified if the other party wins the 2020 presidential election. In 2018, one-third of college students agreed that “physical violence can be justified to prevent a person from using hate speech or making racially charged comments.” The riots roiling America’s cities only activate the latent pool of political hatred engulfing society.

The deepening enmity and estrangement between family members has at least three causes.

First, secularization has deprived us of our identity and our neighbor of human dignity. Without an identity as a child of God, people seek meaning in something larger than themselves – often in politics – and forge their modern identity around those views. Without a belief that all people are created in the image of God, those trying to thwart their political project become part of their secular demonology. And, contrary to Mick Jagger, nobody has sympathy for the devil.

Second, the politicization of all aspects of society inevitably breeds animosity. As Friedrich von Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom, when the government tries to direct the economic decisions of a diverse nation “with widely divergent ideals and values,” even “the best intentions cannot prevent one from being forced to act in a way” he regards as “highly immoral.” Since each side would instrumentalize the government to compel us to violate our moral values, we view everyone on the other side with hostility. The existence of big government is a near occasion of sin.

Third, the resurgence of socialism amplifies these trends. It extends the tentacles of government into every area of life and multiplies the occasions for strife. At the same time, socialism substitutes a temporal paradise and situational ethics for the kingdom of Heaven. As its counterfeit values displace authentic religious faith, socialism creates atheists. Impossible utopian egalitarianism rushes to fill the void left in a generation of hearts by the ebbing of religion.

Love, however, has not filled that void. The decision to cling bitterly to high-status opinions and social media affirmation encroaches on life’s most sacred vows. Harper’s Bazaar advised readers in 2017, “If your partner is a Trump supporter and you are not, just divorce them.” Even ties of blood and birth are not immune.

All of this is redolent of the most chilling analysis of the Scriptures. The Apostle Paul wrote that “perilous times” will come “in the last days,” producing a generation that is “without natural affection” (II Timothy 3:3, see vs. 1-5). Bible commentator Matthew Henry explained:

Wherever there is the human nature, there should be humanity towards those of the same nature, but especially between relations. Times are perilous when children are disobedient to their parents (2 Tim. 3:2) and when parents are without natural affection to their children, 2 Tim. 3:3. See what a corruption of nature sin is, how it deprives men even of that which nature has implanted in them for the support of their own kind; for the natural affection of parents to their children is that which contributes very much to the keeping up of mankind upon the earth. And those who will not be bound by natural affection, no marvel that they will not be bound by the most solemn leagues and covenants.

Dissolving the most intimate connections of family renders society inoperable. The family is the first and most foundational building block of civilization. St. Philaret of Moscow wrote that it is the Fifth Commandment “on which the good order, first of families and afterwards of all social life, depends.”

The words of holy people of the past, and our own aching relationships, tell us that politicizing every aspect of life holds corrosive – and potentially apocalyptic – consequences.

(Kellyanne Conway addresses the 2020 Republican National Convention on August 26, 2020. Photo credit: Susan Walsh / Associated Press.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.