Thinking About Arguing About Politics Over Thanksgiving Dinner? Don’t

Given the times we live in, you may be tempted to argue about politics tomorrow. Here's my advice --- don't do it.

It’s Thanksgiving during a time of high political controversy and drama, so of course, the media is filled with reports about political discussions at the Thanksgiving table. This isn’t the first time we’ve come across an intersection of politics and the holidays, of course. During the early years of President Obama’s second term, for example, pundits were telling us how to argue with relatives about a whole host of issues, as I documented in posts around this time in 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Back then, of course, the big topic for argument was the Affordable Care Act, but there were also people who felt it necessary to instruct us how to argue with relatives about a whole host of topics ranging from climate change and marriage equality to  immigrationCommon Core, the events in Ferguson, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the political subtext of the Hunger Games books and movies, football, but only if you want to talk about anything other than what’s actually happening on the field, and a whole host of other issues. This year the big political issue is Donald Trump, who is already a controversial subject to, and the ongoing impeachment investigation. The New York Times, FiveThirtyEight, and The Washington Post (twice) all have guides about how to talk about the impeachment with your relatives regardless of which side of the aisle you come from, and I’m sure you can find other sites that have similar advice.

On some level, I suppose, I can see why people who spend their time writing about politics would be writing about how to talk about it at Thanksgiving and, inevitably given the world that we live in, it’s probably that some of these topics will come up during the course of this weekend as people gather together. As someone who reads, writes, and talks about politics and policy issues on an almost daily basis, it’s certainly a topic that I’d probably be inclined to slip into quite easily and one I’d find far more interesting than, say, what’s happening on some television show I don’t watch or the pros and cons of Taylor Swift’s ongoing disputes with Spotify. At the same time, though, I find myself agreeing with something Michael Brendan Daugherty wrote several years ago: 

Our politics are taking on a religious shape. Increasingly we allow politics to form our moral identity and self-conception. We surround ourselves with an invisible community of the “elect” who share our convictions, and convince ourselves that even our closest and beloved relatives are not only wrong, but enemies of goodness itself. And so one of the best, least religious holidays in the calendar becomes a chance to deliver your uncle up as a sinner in the hands of an angry niece.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone. As a conservative raised in an argumentative and left-leaning Irish-American family, Thanksgiving and other holiday dinners did more than any professional media training to prepare me for MSNBC panels. But arguments like these, particularly when we allow politics to dominate our notions of ourselves, can leave lasting scars. And precisely because our familial relationships are so personal, the likely responses to our creamed and beaten talking points will be defensive, anxious, off-subject, or overly aggressive.

You might think you can sneak in a killer talking point about immigration reform, only to touch off a sprawling congress about the personhood of unborn children, the Vietnam War, and whether it is really sexist to describe Nancy Pelosi as a “tough broad.”

Instead, what we really need are guides for gently deflecting the conversation away from politics, as our polite grandmothers once did.

Bringing up politics can be a form of self-assertion, or a way for a family member to test whether he is accepted for who he is. One of the reasons the “conservative uncle” has become the cliched oaf of the Thanksgiving dinner is precisely because he may feel, rightly or wrongly, that the country is moving away from him. He could be testing to see whether his family is ready to reject him, too. Or he could just be an oafish, self-regarding lout. Either way, it doesn’t have to be that hard to show he is appreciated as a family member and human being.

Stephen Carter agrees, and reminds us that there have been times in history when our nation was far more divided than it is today and yet still managed to come together at least one day a year to give thanks. Drawing on the Thanksgiving Proclamations issues by James Madison in 1814, when the nation was dealing with its first and only foreign invasion, and Abraham Lincoln in 1864, when the nation was in the midst of a bloody Civil War, Carter makes this point:

What animates these proclamations whose bicentennial and sesquicentennial we observe this year is a belief in the necessity of gratitude for the remarkable advantages that the U.S. enjoys, and also in the importance of accepting those advantages with an appropriate humility. The institutions of which Madison wrote — the remarkable constitutional structure designed as a guarantor of liberty — has no existence outside of our constant nurture of it. The inestimable blessings of which Lincoln wrote will continue to provide sustenance for our posterity only if we work to make it so.

What does that mean in practice, as we celebrate another Thanksgiving Day? The simplest lesson is also the most obvious: if in times of invasion and Civil War, these presidents were able to call upon us to put aside our divisions and to approach our blessings with gratitude and humility, we their inheritors should do no less.

We’re a divided nation in so many ways. In our responses to everything from the Affordable Care Act to Ferguson to climate change, we’re constantly at one another’s throats, treating those who disagree as enemies to be derided rather than fellow citizens who are part of a common project. College students are being taught to ban speakers whose messages discomfit them. Political parties, egged on by talk show hosts, are raising money through raising fears of diabolical conspiracies.

Even Lincoln, in the midst of so desperate a war, conceded that the enemy was “of our own household.” This was an enemy actually being fought on the battlefield. The very day before Lincoln’s proclamation of Thanksgiving,  the Union had won its costly victory at the Battle of Cedar Creek, suffering more than 5,600 casualties, including some 3,400 dead. Yet Lincoln evidenced a belief that those who fought against the Union were not monsters, but wayward brothers.

We’re an imperfect country, and always will be. The “distinguished favors” and “precious advantages” of which Madison spoke may not always be equally distributed, but they are what mark the nation as distinctive. We can do no greater honor to our forebears than adopting an attitude of respect and humility across our differences, as we give thanks for the remarkable project that is America.

Though coming from different political perspectives Daugherty and Carter manage to come to basically the same point. There are many issues that divide our nation, and many important issues that raise highly emotional responses in people on both sides of the aisle. We have seen two of those issues, immigration and racial tensions, unfold before our eyes again in just the past two weeks. Rather than bringing that political tension into a day meant for friends, family, and football, perhaps it would be a good idea to put politics, or at least the unending desire that human beings have to convince people that they are right no matter what, to the side and concentrate on something else. There are 365 days in the year, surely we don’t need to be spending all of them arguing about political issues. So, instead of arguing with the family, spend time with them and get to know them better if you don’t see them very often. Life is too short to be worrying about whether or not they agree with you about politics or not. And, yes, that’s advice that goes for both sides.

All of this reminds me of an old rule in my family that there were two topics that were generally off-limits at family gatherings, politics, and religion. It came about before my time but was largely influenced, I’d imagine, by the political and cultural differences that were making their way through the country in the 1960s. Bringing up topics that were only likely to cause disagreement at a time when people are supposed to be spending time together and having fun obviously didn’t seem like a good idea, and it strikes me that this is still a pretty good idea. As it stands, the NFL games and the old battles over who gets the drumsticks and whether cranberry sauce is better freshly made or in that jellied stuff that comes out of a can will be the source of enough conflict that there’s really no point in adding politics in the mix, especially when you’re talking about two incredibly controversial political topics.

So, my advice about arguing politics tomorrow is simple. Don’t. Enjoy the holiday for what it is and, of course, root against Dallas (sorry James and Steven), maybe even consider turning off your smartphone that will be good enough.

FILED UNDER: Society, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    root against Dallas (sorry James and Steven)

    We in Western NY cosign this.

    Often the challenge isn’t that you want to argue politics, but you have one attendee who decides to stir the pot and does so with talk radio/internet talking points. Nothing is more fun than that bully deciding to hold court and watch everyone passively agree with whatever her or she says in the desperate hope of moving onto another topic.

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  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    While I intend to avoid politics, there’s two things I recognize:
    1. Not discussing it is an implicit acceptance of the status quo, so is not actually apolitical
    2. It’s my observation that the people who complain most about political arguments tend to also be the people who are unable to go more than 15 minutes without bringing politics up.

    There’s something of a hostage situation mentality going on: they deliberately place the personal relationship at risk because they believe you’re willing to do more to protect it than they are.

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  3. Senyordave says:

    I retired last year, but for my whole working life I always discussed politics with my close co-workers. I’m liberal, and many of them were conservative (I worked as an actuary and financial analyst). There was never any problems. The Trump presidency has made it almost impossible to argue with his supporters. When the POTUS has trouble uttering a sentence without lying, and his supporters claim he’s telling the truth and the people saying he’s lying are “fake news”, what is the point of engaging?
    This doesn’t even address the fact that Trump, and many of his supporters, act like people who don’t support him are not “real” Americans. Palin used this approach, but Trump has perfected it. Liberals like me want to rename Thanksgiving, and of course we want to outlaw the term Merry Christmas (of course, Trump properties use the PC Happy Holidays).
    I have a very small, spread out family, and pretty much everyone is left of center so I don’t know what it is like to have a Trumpkin as a close relative, but it sounds like your advice is sound. Don’t engage. The only exception I would make is if someone starts spouting off racist crap – they should be taken aside and told to stop or GTFO.

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  4. de stijl says:

    Seriously don’t.

    And if someone else does pointedly change the topic.

    I saw a headline yesterday for “5 one-liners you can use against your something wing uncle”.

    Don’t!

    I don’t give a crap about your family dynamics, but just don’t. Not the time for score-settling.

    If someone pushes it at you, just say “I don’t want to talk about this” firmly. Walk away. Just walk away. (Like the Humongous told the fort where Mad Max was ensconced. You don’t have give up your gas, though. Different scenario.)

    Not worth it. Walk away. Make them the bad guy.

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  5. Tyrell says:

    Most of the relatives and friends here are Trump people, even though a lot are registered Democrats (it’s a southern thing).
    The talk will be about them Cowboys, Duke’s big upset, shopping, NASCAR, and movies. No politics.

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  6. grumpy realist says:

    Yup–say “I don’t want to talk about that” and just walk away. Or get everyone together beforehand and come to an agreement that whenever “Crazy” uncle Eddie tries to start one of his rants, the person next to him will loudly ask “Uncle Eddie, can you please pass me the mashed potatoes?” and everyone else starts talking about football.

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  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I love my brothers and sisters. Even tho the few times trump has come up in conversation his name has been met with universal snorts of derision, we don’t talk politics. By and large we agree on most things but that doesn’t mean everything and who wants to interrupt the love with an argument over petty politics?

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  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    Also, I’d like to draw attention to the problem of anti-avuncular stereotyping. Why is it always the uncle who’s depicted as the trouble maker at family gatherings?

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  9. Michael Reynolds says:

    I think that’s bad advice. Bad for families, bad for the country. We’ve had way too much, for way too long, of people avoiding topics that should be discussed in the family. Divisive? OK, then, it’s divisive. But the division came about in large part because we – especially we in majority groups – avoid talking about serious issues.

    We are beyond politics into the realm of good and evil. I wonder how many Germans in 1939 had serious family discussions of anti-semitism?

    I’ve had a very successful 40 year marriage, all through my problems with the law, through desperate poverty, through all sorts of changes. We are both very determined (there’s a nice euphemism) people, but we decided early on, against all the wise advice, that we would hash out every difference and reach a resolution. This has meant many 3 AM shout-fests over the years. But we are still together, still united, still in love. Letting things fester, or ignoring problems, are bad strategies.

    The guy’s birthday celebrated on December 25 had this to say:

    Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

    To hell with peace, draw your swords, and happy birthday, Jesus.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I just don’t get people who walk away from family over politics. I mean, really? That’s how much they mean to you? You were lying all those years you said you loved them? Now they are shit? I have a long time buddy who has recently entered such a schism with his father. They are both acting like a couple of 7 yr olds. Both of them dance around the subject with me. They allude to it in the most tangential of ways without ever actually coming right out and bald faced talking about it with me. I think both of them are afraid of what I might have to say about it.

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  11. Stormy Dragon says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    Suppose one of your parents became a full on white supremacist, and spent holiday meals talking about how we have to take the right to vote away from minorities to save the white race from genocide.

    Would you be comfortable continuing to spend time with them?

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  12. de stijl says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Uncles are are like dads in poorly written sitcoms. The preferred punching bag, studiously inept.

    Point for avuncular.

    Is the a corresponding auntishy word? Besides auntish which I just made up?

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  13. Stormy Dragon says:

    @de stijl:

    The aunt equivalent of “avuncular” is “materteral”.

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  14. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I’d agree for close family, but I’m not sure anyone needs to hash out their differences with the uncle they see three times a year. Just put them and their views in a little cage, like they would put brown children in. Either a metaphorical cage, or an actual cage if someone crates their dog.

    If they keep pushing it, however, and they then rhetorically ask “Do you know what I hate?”, consider suddenly interjecting “black people?” with as much earnestness as you can manage, before they can finish their thought.

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  15. de stijl says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Why address it on Thanksgiving in front of everyone tho?

    Do it on the phone or in an e-mail.

    It is not my job to make everyone socially comfortable always. It is my duty to reduce the numbers of witnesses to family drama to the lowest possible number. Two is optimal.

    If you and partner are expecting and have decided to share that, do that. Grandma, Aaron is my boyfriend not my roommate; we’ve talked about this. My name is Jennifer; please call me Jennifer. All of those are sharable things, tho would better addressed than around the Thanksgiving table. Acceptable if parameters are met.

    “Uncle Bob, your political views are shit and so are you. Here’s why…” is unneeded and unwanted and avoidable.

    “I don’t want to talk about.” Walk away. Just walk away.

    Feral Kid will pop out of a hole, chuck his metal boomerang at the Humongous’s boy toy but miss, brainy Smurf will try to catch the boomerang and get all of his fingers severed. All the semi naked people in hockey gear will laugh and point. Feral Kid will hoot, do a backflip, and jump back into his hole which everyone totally ignores because Miller wrote that bit a might wobbly.

    None of that will happen unless you live inside Mad Max. It should though cuz it would be post apocalyptically awesome.

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  16. Stormy Dragon says:

    @de stijl:

    I agree with handling it before hand. I was responding to Ozark’s questioning the idea two family members could have a falling out over politics at all.

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  17. Guarneri says:

    I’d love to stay and argue the point, but the cult meeting starts in 20 minutes and I’ve got to apply my face paint.

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  18. Tyrell says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:After eating, the ladies clean up while the guys sit around the tv or go outside to look under the hoods and discuss their cars.
    Around mid afternoon, a lot of them head out tline up at the stores to get a head start on “Black Friday” sales instead of staying for another go round of turkey, dressing and pie. Now it seems no one is around long enough to discuss much of anything. So that is one thing that has changed with the Thanksgiving routine.

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  19. Jax says:

    @Guarneri: Alllllright, you made me laugh on that one. 😉 Happy Thanksgiving, Guarneri!

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  20. CSK says:

    To all of you: My very best wishes for a happy Thanksgiving full of good food, good drink, and good cheer.

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  21. Jay L Gischer says:

    I walked in to a family picnic on the Fourth of July of 2016 and my brother-in-law’s stepfather D. greeted me with, “Well, Jay what do you think of Trump!” with a tone that suggested he knew the answer, but he liked Trump.

    My reply was, “Are we gonna talk about politics here?” His wife responded by batting him on the shoulder, and there was an uncomfortable bunch of shifting around and politics did not come up for the rest of the day.

    Said person is someone I like in many ways. He now is as conservative as ever but hates Trump because my brother-in-law finally suggested to D. that he look at other news sources in addition to Fox. Now he thinks Trump is an idiot.

    That said, I’ve had one-on-one discussions, but I will insist that they take the conversation seriously. I will take their actual needs and struggles and interests seriously, and they will feel that, in time. I just don’t think Trump is ultimately going to satisfy them in the least. He’s all smoke and mirrors. Yeah, he lies to the press and to liberals. He’s lying to conservatives, too. It’s all a big show, he’s just better at the show.

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  22. Slugger says:

    My family is a microcosm of humanity and contains saints, fools, idiots, and lovable rogues. I try to maintain a facade of calm. My father was impervious to facts at times and knew how to pull my chain like no one else could. I miss him and wish he was here to say something insulting to me…I’ve had a few years to come up with zingers, and I would love the chance to not say them to him.
    I hope all of you will sit surrounded with people who love you no matter how big a fool you are. That’s my plan for tomorrow.

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  23. 95 South says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Uncle is a code word for adult male who isn’t paying for my college, so he doesn’t have to convince himself I’m getting smarter.

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  24. Sleeping Dog says:

    After years of family gathering indigestion, I finally hit on a way to make my point and keep the temperature down, adopt the Socratic method. Just keep asking them questions, make them defend their positions. It allows you to not get into the shouting match and lays bare the contradictions inherent in their positions.

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  25. Kylopod says:

    @de stijl: @Stormy Dragon: Whenever I hear the word avuncular, I’m reminded of the line from Hitchhikers Guide about how Ford Prefect’s dad “both fathered and uncled” Ford.

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  26. Jax says:

    The weather precluded Thanksgiving for us this year, we’ve had 8-12 inches of snow the last 12 hours and that “bomb cyclone” the Weather Channel is so excited about is aiming for us, so we all decided we’d like to live and not try to drive.

    That said, 5 of us have 21 pounds of turkey and alllll the trimmings, plus the wine and spiked eggnog I made to eat/drink and be merry with….until I’m sober enough to clear out the road, apparently.

    Nobody’s going to to town without chains for a looooong time. 😉

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  27. Teve says:

    Mass for Shut-ins (is a podcast)
    @edburmila
    ·
    Nov 25
    The conventional advice is “Avoid politics at thanksgiving” but as a political scientist I advise you go hard. Point out all the social welfare programs your relatives are on. When your uncle says “it’s illegal to say merry Christmas in New York” call him a fucking moron.
    Mass for Shut-ins (is a podcast)
    @edburmila
    Challenge your Dad to a fistfight the second time he brings up Hunter Biden. When your grandma starts bitching about immigrants, tell her you tried to organize an intervention for her pill problem but couldn’t find 4 people who want her to live.

    Be great. Hold nothing back.
    10:04 PM · Nov 25, 2019·

    thread

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  28. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Guarneri: Dont forget your Hooded Robe, the Skoal, and the Natty Ice! People are depending on ya!

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  29. Moosebreath says:

    Clearly someone disagrees with this thread’s advise.

    Extra credit for guessing the tweeter’s last name before mousing over or clicking on the link.

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  30. Kathy says:

    Perhaps we can do a highly unscientific, highly anecdotal, extremely informal study (of sorts), if in tomorrow’s open forum you all share what arguments, political or not, you got into, out of , or witnessed over the Thanksgiving dinner.

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  31. CSK says:

    @Moosebreath: God, he’s trashy.

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  32. motopilot says:

    A funny Tweet that I saw today…

    I will be changing my wifi password to “IMPEACH45” this Thursday so that my MAGA family members have to put that in their devices to have some of my delicious WiFi.

    — Tony Posnanski (@tonyposnanski) November 23, 2019

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  33. Tyrell says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I agree that people need to talk about things of various subjects, but I am thinking that holiday occasions are not the best time. Holidays are times of fun and relaxation. A time to get away from the daily drum of the news media, work, traffic, and issues. Many family members thoughts turn to past holidays and their loved ones who are no longer around. No use making things more stressful with political talk with could easily turn into a full blown set of hollering and accusations. I want people to leave our home on a positive note. I don’t want Thanksgiving or Christmas to turn into a SWAT type deal. A more suitable situation could be at some sort of presentation, town meeting, or class. There used to be the “Great Decisions” classes where people could meet and talk about the issues in an appropriate way.
    Maybe people need to get back to what these holidays are for anyway. About half our group left around mid-afternoon to go and get in line for the early Black Friday sales that started at 5:00. The rest cleaned up and watched tv. So the get-together is not what it was.

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  34. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Absolutely. They. are. my. parents. My old man didn’t kill me when everyone would probably agree that he had every right to. OK ok, they would have said maybe it wasn’t right but it was certainly understandable.

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