For many families, arguments over politics is as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as your Aunt Norma’s “special” green beans. Far-flung relatives who have spent the year steeping in their echo chamber of choice are all but guaranteed to show up to dinner ready to make their opinions forcefully known. But that doesn’t mean this year’s holiday meal has to devolve into a screaming match.
Even in our balkanized political culture, it’s usually possible to disagree respectfully. It isn’t easy, but it’s possible, according to Utah Governor Spencer Cox and Colorado Governor Jared Polis. Polis, a Democrat, and Cox, a Republican, are the co-heads of Disagree Better, an initiative from the National Governors Association aimed at finding a way for Americans of different political beliefs to work together. Their focus is mainly on public policy, but the pair also have practical advice for regular people to share conflicting political views without anyone throwing the cranberry sauce on the floor.
There’s no reason that your MAGA uncle and your woke niece can’t sit down together around the table and have a conversation.
“There’s no reason that your MAGA uncle and your woke niece can’t sit down together around the table and have a conversation,” Polis said at a recent event held at Colorado State University. “We have a holiday coming up, Thanksgiving, a national day of gratitude, and I think around most extended family dinner tables [there are] people of all different political persuasions. It’s a good opportunity to be curious, ask questions, and be civil. I think too often we treat politics as something that can’t be discussed without toxicity, but that’s kind of giving up on what it means to be [in a] Republic.”
One “magic question” to diffuse heated political conversation
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According to Governor Cox, there is a “magic question” that you can ask to reach common ground with just about anyone: “Tell me more about why you feel that way.”
“That question does two things: it calms me down, and it shows I’m interested in the other person,” Cox said. “If you ask it enough times to get through to the ‘why,’ you’ll find you have something in common with them. Because it almost always comes down to them loving their country, their family, and their community.”
The worst thing you can do in a political discussion: attack
Whether your goal is to change people’s minds or just make it through the pumpkin pie course without tears, the worst rhetorical tactic you can take in a political discussion is attacking.
“We always think, ‘This time it will work. If I just tell them how stupid they are this time, they’ll change their mind.’ But it never works,“ Cox said. “No one has ever changed anyone’s mind by attacking them.”
Instead of attacking, approach with humility. According to Cox, internally maintaining the idea that you could be wrong is a useful approach to any potentially confrontational political disagreement. Cox says that you don’t need to think you’re probably wrong, just be open to the possibility that you might be wrong. If you do this, you’ll have a much better conversation.
“It gives the other person permission to think they might be wrong as well,” Cox explains.
Identity and politics: addressing the causes of our divisive political rhetoric
One of the key points both Polis and Cox stressed was that our current political climate is not normal.
“You may think that this is what politics is, or this is the way it has to be, but it is not,” Polis said. “I do not accept that.”
Comparing the thoughtful discussion between Cox and Polis with the typical bombast from national political leaders highlights the commodification of political outrage that’s causing much of our current divide.
“If you want to get on cable news you have to say some pretty crazy stuff,” Cox said. “So we end up with a Congress full of performers, people who aren’t accomplishing anything, because that’s what we’re incentivizing.”
His remedy for regular people: turn off cable news.
“My wife and I just celebrated 11 years of not watching cable news, and our marriage is better, our family is better, and we’re happier [and] healthier,” Cox said.
Another issue the governors highlighted as a reason for political arguments: isolation.
“People are too lonely and so they’re finding their tribes [online.] Like, if I don’t have any friends, at least we can hate the same people together on Facebook.” Cox said.
According to Cox and Polis, incentivized political poison combined with loneliness has resulted in a population that aligns itself with ideological positions to an unhealthy degree. Part of how we can all do better, according to the governors, is to try to not define ourselves by our political affiliations.
“If you think of yourself first as a conservative or progressive or a liberal or whatever, then you’re doing something wrong,” Cox said. “Historically, our political identity was way down the list of how we defined ourselves. Growing up, we were Rams, we were Aggies, we were moms and dads, Americans, Coloradans, and eventually you get down to ‘I’m a Democrat’ or ‘I’m a Republican.'”
Talk about politics, but talk about other things too
While engagement and healthy discussion of current events is positive, at the end of the (Thanksgiving) day, there are a lot of things you can talk about that aren’t politics.
“We should be able to engage and have these conversations, but if that’s all you want to do, everywhere you go. you’re not going to have any friends,” Cox said. “So get real friends and talk about other things.”
“If the conversation starts to derail or get heated, turn on football,” Polis suggested. “The Rams are going to beat Nevada this weekend. We can all cheer for that.”
When you shouldn’t have a political conversation
With all respect to Governor’s Polis and Cox, their discussion centered on semi-normal people, but there are folks with whom it is not possible to have a useful political conversation at all, and some of them might be around your dinner table this Thanksgiving. A person who doesn’t recognize the humanity of others—transphobes, antisemites, sexists, racists of all kinds—isn’t expressing a view that’s worth considering or engaging with. Maybe the person behind the argument isn’t irredeemable, but their ideas are. You’re under no obligation to tolerate intolerance, and with levels of extremism rising in the United States, political arguments can lead to violence, especially if there’s drinking involved—and there’s always drinking involved at Thanksgiving.
Ultimately, if a hateful relative is attending a family dinner, you probably shouldn’t. Whatever sense of obligation you might feel to your family at the holidays shouldn’t override your safety, both physically and emotionally, so say “no thank you.” Offer an explanation if you think it’s best, or just say “I made other plans,” or “I have COVID.” You’re an adult, after all. You could also try the “If they are going to be there, I am not” approach, but don’t be surprised if you’re not the one chosen.
On the other hand, life is messy. Family dynamics can be complicated. Principles can be surprisingly malleable. You might have your own reasons to attend Thanksgiving dinner even though your racist uncle Carl will be passing you the mashed potatoes. Maybe it’s the last times you’re likely to see your grandmother, or maybe you don’t want to be written out of someone’s will. If you do put yourself in that situation, ignore Governors Polis and Cox’s advice. Saying, “tell me more about why you feel that way” while internally maintaining that you might be wrong is not a good approach to an argument about whether people should be murdered by the state for crossing a border or whether Democrats are actually Satanic child molesters.
As for how you should handle it, I don’t know if there’s a right answer. My own instinct (derived from my dysfunctional background, no doubt) is to avoid, deflect, and change the subject—anything to prevent a scene. But others say you should openly confront hatred in your daily life, maybe even if it ruins everyone’s Thanksgiving. If you have any answers, I’m all ears.