alex atkins bookshelf cultureWhile mashed potatoes and gravy is a classic holiday combination, mixing family and politics is not. Add several rounds of wine, and you have a recipe for a heated political debate; it is only a matter of time when you will be dodging turkey legs and dinner rolls thrown across the table. Unfortunately, since the election of Donald Trump as President in 2016, families have allowed partisan politics to creep into their Thanksgiving feast. And what is the impact on this cherished annual tradition? Families with mixed political alliances spent between 20 to 50 minutes less time wolfing down turkey and all the fixings at the table, according to a 2016 study by Keith Chen, a behavioral economist at the UCLA, and Ryne Rohla, a Ph.D. student in economics at Washington State University. The researchers found that Republicans left earlier than Democrats, while some Democrats were more likely to skip dinner altogether. The effect increased significantly in areas with heavy political advertising that evoked fear and anger. Sadly, Americans pay a heavy social and personal price for this political divide — losing 73.6 million person-hours of precious family time each year; time that is lost forever.
So what is it about political discourse discussing turkeys in Washington over turkey that causes so much anxiety and acrimony? Suzanne Vegges-White, chair of Northern Illinois University’s Counseling, Adult and Higher Education Department, notes that the root problem is the expectation that all family members are on one side. She elaborates: “In terms of professional football, for instance, whether we pull for the Los Angeles Rams or the Chicago Bears, many of us are going to be loyal even when our team has a losing season and when they are playing an ‘arch rival,’ we become highly energized and invested in the game’s outcome. With politics, we also align ourselves with a particular side and we lose our ability to perceive the competition/political rival through a clear and balanced perspective. We care more about ‘our side’ winning than about learning about the other side’s standpoints.” What magnifies the rancor is that unlike support for a football team, support for a particular party and its platforms has real world impacts on a people — economic, legislative, mental and physical well-being, etc. Vegges-White continues: “We all need to experience a sense of belonging with others and when we feel that our families do not understand or agree with our perspective, it can be emotionally distressing. We may try even harder to convince family members to share our own beliefs than we would with acquaintances or strangers with whom we do not expect to have frequent or close interactions.”
Graham Hall, a linguistics professor at Northumbria University in Newcastle, U.K., who wrote “How to talk about politics with your family” for The Conversation, observed “Maybe it boils down to the idea that we can choose our friends but not our family, and perhaps we tend to choose our friends because of shared values. We can also ‘drop’ friends in a way which we can’t with family.” Mediator Kenneth Cloke, author of Politics, Dialogue and the Evolution of Democracy : How to Discuss Race, Abortion, Immigration, Gun Control, Climate Change, Same Sex Marriage and Other Hot Topics, notes that what makes politics so divisive is that it segregates people into right and wrong: [That’s] a form of domination. That is, one side being right and the other side being wrong and there isn’t any perceived option that would allow people to discover what is right in both people’s perspective and what is wrong… We have slipped into a way of talking about politics and conducting politics that is unnecessarily divisive. So, if you think about what politics actually is, you can define it as consisting of two separate and entirely different things. The first is just a form of social problem-solving. If it’s just social problem-solving, it’s not much conflict. And the conflict there is constructive and useful.”
So how should family members talk about politics at Thanksgiving? A number of experts and organizations have come up with some best practices for keeping the peace at Thanksgiving dinner:
Engage in one-on-one conversations rather than group discussions.
Find something in common with someone who holds different political views. Try to understand their point of view and initially respond with a distillation of their ideas.
Criticize the ideas and not the family member. That is to say, criticize the legislative issues, policies, or actions.
Avoid asking “gotcha” questions that evoke arguments rather than discussions.
Keep a sense of humor about certain topics. Making fun of politicians or policies is less threatening than severe criticism.
Focus on the values that family members have in common and discuss how a politician or policy does or does not support those values.
Avoid assigning negative motives or labels to categorize the other side (terms like “racist,” “socialist,” etc.)
Stay calm: don’t raise your voice or get flustered.
Steer conversation to happy or positive topics when the conversation is headed toward acrimony.
Everyone responds to alcohol differently. Since alcohol lowers inhibitions, for some people, it brings out the worst. Avoid political conversations with individuals who tend to be argumentative and belligerent after a few drinks.
The goal of a discussion is not necessarily to change a person’s mind. Liberals and conservatives mostly fail when they try to persuade their opponents because simply proclaiming your position passionately and questioning the motives and morality of ideological opponents is counterproductive. Research by Stanford sociologist Robb Willer and social psychologist Matthew Feinberg found that the best way to change an opponent’s mind is if you appeal to their deeply-held values, evoking empathy and commonality.
So share this post and promote the intention of Thanksgiving: giving thanks for all the good things in life.