Yes, You Should Talk Politics with Your Family Over Thanksgiving

The key is in how you do it.

Every year, the specter of political discord looms over the holidays. But despite the widespread attention it garners, few Americans report fighting over politics at the dinner table. This year, most of us are seeking to strenuously avoid political topics at family get-togethers. This is a mistake. Americans are likely tired of talking about politics. But we should. In fact, we should talk about politics a lot more than we do.

Our problem is not that we have become too obsessed with politics. Rather, it’s who we choose to discuss politics with that is the problem. Too many of us only talk politics with people who think as we do. I wrote about this phenomenon last year, suggesting that “Democrats And Republicans Should Argue More – Not Less.” Today, more than half of Democrats and Republicans have no close connection to someone with different political views. As a result, we trust each other less, hate each other more, and are wildly misinformed about what the other side actually thinks.

But it’s not just who we’re talking to, but how we engage, says Chris Celaya, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Harvard University’s Center on American Politics. Celaya recently gave a presentation titled: “Talking about politics on Thanksgiving.” He generously shared his thoughts about how to talk politics with family members. “The expectation is that discussing politics will only lead to disagreements and animosity, which can ruin the holidays, but I don't think that has to be the case,” Celaya said over email. Here are a few ways to have more productive conversations about politics with your nearest and dearest.

1) Drop the Political Labels

Most Americans do not follow politics closely. Today, political independents far outnumber self-identified Democrats and Republicans, and even hardened partisans are often not enamored with party leaders. Yet when we talk about political issues, we often do so as a member of a political tribe. Celaya urges against engaging in political discussions as a representative of a political party or ideological movement.

“This might sound counterintuitive, but the first thing I recommend is that you abandon your political ideology. There is a difference between supporting a conservative policy and identifying as a conservative, and likewise for liberal. The former is just a policy stance, which can be easily updated with new information. The latter is a social identity, which is sticky and dogmatic. When someone disagrees with your policy stance, you can have an earnest and productive debate that might even lead to both sides coming away with more nuance and respect. But when someone disagrees with your ideology, there is no room for compromise.”

Political labels can be useful, but they are blunt instruments. For most of us, any political label is imperfectly aligned with our actual political beliefs. And they fail to capture the nuance, complexity, and malleability of our positions. If we avoid political labels, it becomes easier to speak for ourselves and not feel compelled to advocate for or defend an entire political movement, ideology, or party.  

2) Make Politics Impersonal

If you think Democrats are elitist or Republicans are racist, it is next to impossible to have a constructive dialogue on any issue. Unfortunately, a 2020 survey found that most Americans believe that our political views say a lot about the kind of person someone we are. Celaya argues that it is critical we recognize that political opinions are neither evidence of a character defect nor a sign of virtue. “Political preferences are the result of myriad factors, such as personal experience, socialization, or differential expectation of policy benefits,” he says. Supporting a particular cause or candidate neither makes you a good or bad person, but too many of us think that it does.

If we’re able to acknowledge that political attitudes are not personal attributes, it becomes easier to “agreeably disagree,” and better understand why they support the policies they do. “If we can realize that there is a basis for their political preferences, even if that basis doesn't work for us, we can at least see the other side as legitimate. And that's much more important than most policy victories,” Celaya says.

3) Put Family First

The reason why political discussions with family members are potentially more constructive than yelling at strangers on the Internet is because of the shared history and (hopefully) mutual feelings of love and respect we can fall back on if conversations become difficult. Celaya advises that we should never lose sight of that fact. “When we talk to strangers about politics, and when we disagree, the only information we have about that person is that they are a political opponent, and thus it is very easy to dismiss and stereotype that person,” Celaya says. “But it's much harder to do that with family members that we care about as we know from experience that they are not one-dimensional political caricatures.”

It's important to recognize that the defining characteristic of family isn't ideological cohesion, but rather elements like mutual care and respect Celaya says. What drives families apart is not the existence of political disagreement, but our response to and feelings about those differences. 

4) Proceed with Humility

Humility can be a rare thing in political discussions. When trying to convince others of the rightness of our own position most of us try exuding extreme confidence. But it’s better to start with humility. For one, “most people overestimate how much knowledge they have about subjects. This is evident from robust research on the Dunning-Kruger effect, which shows that the less we know, the more confident we tend to be,” Celaya says.

Moreover, if our goal is not to persuade, but to learn, we can invite our relatives to explain their reasoning or to expand on their explanations. “Research has shown that if you ask people to go into more detail about why they support the positions they do, they actually become less confident in their stance and thus less likely to ignore contrasting arguments​.”

Finally, if we focus less on scoring points or winning the argument, it is possible to have a much more open conversation. “If they perceive that you are listening, they will be more invested in earnestly engaging with you,” Celaya says.

Most of us find it stressful and frustrating to discuss politics with people who hold different opinions. But it doesn’t have to be. It’s important to set realistic expectations for any political conversation. Even if you feel your efforts did not fully persuade a family member to abandon their long-held political beliefs, you can still make a difference. Research has shown that Americans with politically mixed social circles tend to be more open to compromise and are less likely to embrace extreme positions. They also have more positive views of their political opponents. Refusing to talk about politics does not heal political divisions: it just encourages us to rely on preexisting stereotypes and prejudices.

Arguing over politics can often seem pointless and counterproductive. But if done well, we can all benefit from it. And that’s something to be thankful about.

American Life: Facts and Figures

· The Rise of Friendsgiving: A 2019 poll found that 58 percent of younger adults (age 18 to 38) say they prefer Friendsgiving to the traditional Thanksgiving holiday. Since first emerging on the Internet in 2007, the holiday has become increasingly popular, at least measured by Google search data.

· The Man Park: Over the summer, we found that men are experiencing a friendship recession—fewer men report having close friends today than in the past. The numbers are eye-opening, and they may have caught the attention of the writers over at Saturday Night Live, who wrote a new sketch about male friendships. The Man Park: A place where men can find friendship.

· Americans Find Friendship More Meaningful. Despite the widespread decline of close friends in the US, Americans are still more likely than people in other countries to say that friendship is a critical part of living a good life. A new study by the Pew Research Center finds that Americans are exceptional in the importance we place on friendship.