Go Ahead, Talk Politics at Thanksgiving

Six in 10 Americans say they dread the topic coming up, but better to embrace the challenge than try to stave off the inevitable.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Of all the Thanksgiving anxieties—bad traffic; overcooked turkey; undercooked turkey; the aunt who tries to get creative with some gourmet cranberry relish when all you want is the familiar canned variety, dammit; her increasingly intoxicated and querulous husband; and so on—no fear seems to equal that of getting sucked into a political conversation.

Six in 10 Americans in a new NPR/PBS NewsHour poll said they dread political talk at the Thanksgiving table. Four in 10 say Trump is the most likely spark for a dinnertime fight, six times the nearest rival, according to SurveyMonkey. Journalists churn out piping-hot “how to avoid political arguments with your family” takes this time of year like so many pumpkin pies. In 2012, Jon Lovett wrote a handy guide in these pages. (TL;DR: Change the subject shamelessly.) A year later, my colleague Conor Friedersdorf wrote a guide to how to argue if you must (TL;DR: Don’t be a jerk) but cautioned, “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.”

This hasn’t stopped some people from urging others to do it—most notably Barack Obama, who encouraged people to talk about health insurance at Thanksgiving 2013. No wonder Obamacare was so unpopular for so long.

This year, however, here’s my (probably bad) advice: Go ahead, argue about politics.

There are two primary reasons to just dive in. First, President Trump’s ability to grab the spotlight and inject himself into so many facets of life makes trying to avoid politics practically futile these days. I’m a political journalist and spend all my time talking, reporting, and writing about politics, so I am not especially representative, but I also live far outside the Beltway in North Carolina. I am astonished at how often conversations with “civilians” outside of politics and journalism drift inexorably toward politics, followed by an awkward silence as everyone realizes the discussion has gone there. Besides, what else are you going to talk about? The weather? That’s going to be a climate-change debate in no time at all. The NFL? Don’t even get started. Might as well embrace the inevitable!

Second, the stakes are higher this year. That isn’t to say that politics doesn’t affect our lives deeply all the time—if I felt it didn’t, I wouldn’t waste my time covering it—but the matters that the past year or two have brought into the arena are central to the nation’s identity: the role of racism in American society, the fate of longstanding norms about how the U.S. functions, the appropriate role for our country in global affairs, what rule of law means, and nuclear war, for Pete’s sake. These are more important than the details of health-care legislation, marginal tax rates, or any number of the mundane topics that might have caused friction at previous years’ family feasts. If the things I’m talking about here are more likely to cause screaming matches, that’s because they’re so important.

Which isn’t to endorse screaming matches—more on that in a bit. But given the increasing segregation of U.S. society by income, education level, religiosity, and political belief, there are few occasions when most Americans are as likely to be in a room with other people who (1) hold different political views from them and (2) are obligated to actually interact and talk with them. Only by talking with relatives can you find out whether they hold dubious political positions (read: ones you disagree with, but also ones that are factually incorrect), and thus try to convince them to adopt your position.

How to do that? Politifact offers a fact sheet for easy reference, but, frankly, you’re probably better off just setting your own pants on fire. If someone wants to hear facts presented to them, just send them to TheAtlantic.com. In-person contact can have a different effect. First, as my colleague Julie Beck has written, simply giving people facts can turn them off or even have the perverse effect of further entrenching misperceptions. But group conversations, such as the one you have while passing the gravy boat, work much better at convincing people. Political scientists have also found that people are more likely to change their political views based on personal interactions—especially personal interactions that are focused on issues, rather than arrayed along partisan battle lines. Again, Thanksgiving dinner lends itself to issue-based conversations, and everyone’s there as a cousin or a brother or a granddaughter, not a Republican or a Democrat.

So go ahead, take on your grandma’s outdated views. Go ahead, get into it with your smug, know-it-all nephew. Go ahead, explain to your cousin who read an online explainer that the issue is more complicated than it appears. The country’s fate depends on it. At the very least, it should create some excitement, which is more than we can say for some of the football games on offer.