If You Must Talk Politics at Thanksgiving, Here's How

10 unsatisfying rules for disagreeing with friends and family over the holidays
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On Thanksgiving, it's usually best if you don't talk politics. The subject tends to aggravate people, and it's very unlikely that anyone's mind will be changed. So don't do it.

But if you must talk politics, how should it be done? A lefty writer I follow is giving the subject some thought. "Every year there's a spate of blog/magazine pieces about how to discuss the political hot potato du jour with your crazy right-wing relatives at Thanksgiving," Kevin Drum writes at Mother Jones. "And every year they're fake. Mostly they provide stock liberal responses to imaginary conservative talking points." (For conservatives, the worry is how to talk with left-wing relatives.)

Isn't there a better way?

Drum is on the right track. He suggests thinking about what your relatives are likely to say and what responses might actually change how they think in small ways. "This would be hard work. You'd have to actually watch Fox News for a while to make sure you know what's really on conservatives' minds these days," he goes on. "Listening to a bit of talk radio and reading some chain emails would help too. And that's not all. You'd almost certainly have to team up with an actual conservative to help you understand both the worldview at work and the kinds of arguments that might appeal to his ideological comrades-in-arms."

But I don't think Drum's explanation is quite right. For a political exchange with loved ones, what's needed isn't a preemptive understanding of your interlocutor's views, it's a conversational approach that combines humility, tact, and respect.

Let's arbitrarily divide this up into 10 rules:

  1. Be open to the possibility that you're wrong. Seriously.
  2. Approach the conversation with the purpose of better understanding one another's views, not proving to your relative that you are right and they are wrong. 
  3. Before you focus on any point of disagreement, ask questions of your interlocutor to figure out why they think the way they do about the subject at hand. 
  4. Emphasize points of agreement, if there are any.
  5. Give them room to agree with your arguments without having to concede that their arguments are stupid, or feeling as if they've lost the exchange and you've won. 
  6. Rather than harping on a particular flaw in their preferred policy, ask questions that force them to confront it. "I agree, killing all the sharks would make it safer for surfers. But what about the creatures that sharks eat? How would you make sure their populations don't explode? Seriously, how would you handle that?"
  7. Don't bother trying to score debating points, especially when you both know that's all they are.
  8. Remember that they know stuff that you don't, just as you know stuff that they don't. 
  9. Remember that lots of intelligent, good-hearted people share their position, and lots of dense jerks share your position, because that's true of almost every position. 
  10. Listen more than you talk.

Following those guidelines is much more difficult than doing prep by listening to the cable news network that your interlocutor watches—and much more effective. When you treat others as you want to be treated, they're more open to your ideas. 

Of course, most people who argue about politics at Thanksgiving aren't actually interested in understanding how others think, or learning anything, or even persuading anyone. They just like to argue. Instead of being competitive about pickup basketball or ping pong, they're competitive about politics. You think that about Obamacare? Let me tell you why you're wrong. In fact, I'll prove it to you.

But don't be depressed by that realization. What it means is you shouldn't take it personally if you have a relative who talks to you like he thinks your political ideas are idiotic. In all likelihood, he or she isn't actually disparaging you personally, any more than the loud guy on the pickup basketball court is actually disparaging the guy he's playing against. Best to brush that dirt off your shoulder.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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