Something was different.
I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but my friend noticed it, too.
The morning after our recent primary election she texted me.
"You vote yesterday? For the first time ever, I felt uncomfortable voting in the (GOP) primary."
Yes. That was it.
Glad I'm not the only one, I thought.
But really, I'm not glad. I'm worried.
Over the course of my life I've lived and voted in several different places, including Washington, D.C., where 76 percent of the voting population is registered Democrat.
Being a political minority was never a scary thing; it was usually a conversation starter.
No kidding. Four years ago, during a friend's destination wedding weekend where I was most certainly the only right-of-center person to make the trip, said friend introduced me as follows: "This is my friend, Cynthia. She's a Republican."
One person responded, "Huh, really? I have one Republican friend. We learn a lot from each other."
That almost always was my experience, too.
For years in Washington, conversation with people of divergent viewpoints was a normal, healthy and often enjoyable. I often found myself out with a liberal friend or co-worker discussing our respective beliefs about the political happenings of the day. Our sympathies seldom changed but our perspectives grew broader. Our political beliefs weren't hidden and weren't a deterrent to our being civil, or being friends.
But when the poll worker asked which ballot I needed, her question felt like a call to arms.
What did the people who turned left at the sign-in table, instead of right, think of me? Did they assume I support everything President Donald Trump or Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick say and do? No, I don't and I wanted them to know. Yet I wasn't sure that mattered.
My particular part of Fort Worth feels like the Austin of Tarrant County – an island of blue in a state that is still overwhelmingly conservative. Just consider that Sen. Ted Cruz won more than twice the number of votes as Beto O'Rourke, the latest Democratic hope for turning Texas blue. So I'm well aware that my political views still tend to prevail throughout the state even if they don't in my precinct. And I'm also aware that some members of my party – including those mentioned above – have adopted language, political strategies and some policy positions that can be self-destructive and unreasonable. I have not been reluctant to say as much. I can handle the extremists in my own party.
But I am increasingly afraid of a broader phenomenon that New York Times writer Bari Weiss recently called "the moral flattening of the earth."
"We live in a world in which politically fascistic behavior, if not the actual philosophy, is unquestionably on the rise," she writes. Just look at current or rising political leaders Italy, Syria, Russia, North Korea, Venezuela and France to start. Yet the ire of many people on the left is being concentrated on the "secret authoritarians passing as liberals and conservatives in our midst."
Because ordinary citizens who possess once widely held, even banal beliefs are now being labeled as fascists. As threats. As enemies.
This is a tectonic shift in how we view people whose views differ from our own. It is most obvious on college campuses where speakers and even professors are frequently prevented, through intimidation and sometimes physical violence, from expressing perspectives that have the potential to offend. It's also present in our social media universe, now a tool to ridicule, demonize and discredit our ideological opponents.
My neighborhood is not a college campus, but walking into my polling place, I wondered if this growing desire to label our opponents, to shut down discussion, to identify differing beliefs as violence, has seeped into the thinking of my friends and neighbors. And if so, what does that mean for the stability of our communities?
I don't know. But something has changed and not for the better.
– Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.