Trying to Avoid Politics Over Thanksgiving

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

“Adele, please release a new album” was all one reader had to say when we asked what you were feeling in the lead-up to Thanksgiving, with so many people bracing themselves for political clashes following a particularly toxic presidential election. The Adele fan might have had in mind this SNL skit from last year:

After the holiday, we reached out to readers again to see how things turned out. Sally paints a vivid picture:

I am the lone Democrat among six siblings ranging in ages 60-75. We gathered at our sister’s weekend cottage, a New Orleans shotgun salvaged from N. Claiborne Avenue and moved to a tongue of land on Bayou Lacombe. Spouses, children, and grandchildren made the crowd large. I steered clear of the sprawling back-porch addition, where the conversations, using outside voices, were laced with declarations about Hillary and Blue Lives Matter.

Inside was more temperate. In past years, my siblings would take me on and I’d jump in with rebuttals, mine from print, theirs from TV and talk radio. This year, I think my sadness was visible to them—not a time for jousting, as it came naturally to me to lower my head and eyes whenever in the vicinity of their political conversations. We did not engage.

Ellen Pober Rittberg and her family also tacitly decided on non-engagement:

Several members of my immediate family had a somewhat heated discussion/debate/what-have-you several days prior to the day of the holiday, and so they/we agreed without agreeing we wouldn’t talk (presidential) politics at table. It helped that there were 12 different dishes and lots of guests (24) so the majority of time guests alternately chewed and head-nodded (while chewing). That the head-nods were not all that emphatic indicated that our informal non-agreement was not breached.

Is strategic avoidance of politics enough to get us all through the holidays—or through the next four years? And how long will it be before the tension gets to be too much?

I spoke on the phone with another reader, Donna, who had written in to say she’d lost a longtime friend over Thanksgiving weekend when an email exchange about Trump’s election got heated. Donna now feels that “the friendship lasted possibly only because I bit my tongue for 30 years.” The following has been condensed and edited from our conversation:

We were friends for 30 years and he had always been very right-wing. But we had a lot of things in common. He and I share a love of the arts and humanities. Even there, his opinion would slip in at times, in ways that I thought were unfair. I would just listen and maybe once in a while say something very general.

Ironically, the breaking point came over a question of unity: The friend had described a national zeitgeist in favor of Trump, says Donna, and she was so irked by the apparent assumption that most people agreed with him that “I guess I couldn’t fake it anymore.” She wrote back to him saying she was upset and didn’t agree. In his reply, he said he didn’t want to know her anymore.

I asked Donna whether she regretted staying quiet for so long to preserve the friendship, and she wasn’t sure:

He feels so strongly about what he believes, and I don’t think that anybody could change him much. Had I spoken up, I don’t think I would have changed his mind.

After he wrote this long email, I really had a hard time getting to sleep, I was so upset. I had to take a tranquilizer. But last night [after he ended the friendship] I felt a lot calmer, maybe because I finally told him.

Have you ever lost a friend over politics—or found a way to repair a relationship that politics broke? Do you have close friends with whom you disagree on fundamental issues? We’d like to hear your stories: I, for one, could certainly use the advice.

But we’ll end on a more cheerful holiday note with Bill and his wife, two liberal Democrats in Tucson who were apprehensive about an invitation from their conservative neighbors, “who couldn’t be further from us on the political scale of things—or so we thought”:

The third couple they invited, also neighbors, are also Republicans. We are all friends, play a little golf together and share a meal occasionally, but we have not spoken since the summer, as we were away at our summer home and arrived a few days before Turkey Day. We were nervous, but we accepted when the host, over the backyard fence, casually mentioned that they had banned all news from their home and are enjoying getting caught up on repeats on the Home Channel.

The afternoon was lovely. No one brought up the election. At one point, as we were discussing in general terms the difficulty in finding anyplace to put our savings and earn anything, the host said he thought the market was going to crumble soon anyway since the President-elect would probably be indicted and impeached soon. His grace at the dinner table was lovely and asked that the healing in the country start right now. We all said a big Amen.

Later, as we discussed health issues, as we tend to do at our boomer ages, the other Republican mentioned that at least we would soon have a single-payer system, e.g. Medicare for All, since the Republicans are going to screw up the current system that seems to be helping an awful lot of Americans and a single-payer system will be the only solution to fix it … a lot of “about time” chiming in around the table. Another shocker.

Hillary’s name never came up. I was all prepared to use my current approach, “I hope HE is successful and helps all Americans.” Never had to.

So, we were pleasantly surprised to say the least, and we thanked all our neighbors for a graceful dinner and their “act of kindness” toward their distressed/depressed Democratic friends.

Did your family or friends surprise you by coming to an understanding? Let us know. And, in case you missed it last week, here is Sage’s illustrated take on Trumpsgiving: