TURES COLUMN: Why Discussing Politics At Thanksgiving Is Good For Democracy And Your Family

Published 12:22 pm Friday, November 24, 2023

There’s a popular meme which reads “I just saved a ton of money on Christmas gifts discussing politics during Thanksgiving Dinner.” Polls show most Americans don’t want to talk politics during the holidays, and others suggest dodging the topic at Thanksgiving. But research shows that political conversations matter for our country, for bettering our political thoughts, and could produce more civility than banning such discussions at the dinner table.

An Axios and Ipsos Research Poll from 2022 finds 77% say “Thanksgiving celebrations are not the time or place to discuss politics with family.” They also find a majority of Americans disagree with the claim that “My family and I will probably talk about the results of the election.”

It’s not just one bitter midterm election responsible, as other polls confirm these results. And articles like this one from WTSP and another from People Magazine not only tell you to avoid talking about politics but provide active strategies to keep politics from being discussed.

Yet squelching any discussion of politics may be even worse. “Open political discussion between citizens is a cornerstone of democratic theory and contextual accounts of political behaviour,” write Pattie and Johnston in the British Journal of Political Science. “It provides both a means through which individuals can discover what their peers think and a forum within which they can rationalize, explain and perhaps modify their own opinions….theoretical accounts of political conversation also stress its potential impact on more systemic attitudes toward democracy, including the development of tolerance for divergent views and lifestyles.”

In addition to being good for democracy, having political conversations can also help you with your political thoughts. Results from a huge study in Political Communication by Vincent Price, Joseph N. Cappella and Lilach Nir, reveal “Results confirm the hypothesis that exposure to disagreement does indeed contribute to people’s ability to generate reasons, and in particular reasons why others might disagree with their own views.”

Perhaps it’s better to consider how to have a good political conversation, instead of avoiding it. 

Caroline Mehl (Executive Director of OpenMind) and Jonathan Haidt (an NYU social psychologist in their business program) have a few good ideas.  First, they don’t suggest removing all political discussion.  Second, they shift the goal of such discussions from “winning” to “understanding,” so you can see where the other person is coming from. Besides, one side isn’t going to pummel the other into submission like it’s a Thanksgiving Day football game. They also recommend both patience, and emphasize storytelling, if you want to see where someone else gets their ideas.

In an article by The Hill, L.A. clinical psychologist Dr. Lauren Cook suggested responding, not reacting, during a political conversation. 

Reacting involves thinking of the next thing you’ll say, often a retort. Responding means actively listening to the other person, and taking the opportunity to learn something about what motives someone else.

And the stakes couldn’t be higher. WBUR reports from the Washington Post that “Science has determined that both incivility and kindness are contagious…If we experience rudeness or kindness – even if we only witness them – we will tend toward that behavior in our next encounters. So, we have a choice of which contagion we want to spread.” And shutting down all political conversation at Thanksgiving, however well-intentioned, could well be just as uncivil as a rude political discussion. Political dialogue can be good for democracy, developing our own argument, and present the opportunity to replace division with respect for others.