Why Talking Politics at Thanksgiving Might Be a Good Idea

Ahead of Thanksgiving, most people have made one thing clear: They don't want a side dish of political chat alongside their turkey.

In a Quinnipiac University poll, 66 percent of 1,378 American adults who were asked between November 11 to 15 said they were hoping to avoid discussing politics with family or friends at Thanksgiving.

Fortunately for most of those people, 50 percent said it was not likely at all there would be a heated political debate among their loved ones. The responses indicate a clear stance: People want to avoid politics at the dinner table.

Given the fiercely partisan nature of political discourse in the United States at present, this is perhaps unsurprising.

The intensity of the divide increases the chances of major disagreements, and when people from opposing sides struggle to even agree on a shared set of facts, ideological differences look even more difficult to bridge.

But, if there is to be a way beyond this vast impasse, could the journey perhaps begin at home? While heated arguments may not be helpful, constructive discussions might.

Newsweek asked James Campbell, author of Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America, if he thought talking politics at thanksgiving could be useful in healing the partisan split across the nation.

"This is becoming a harder question to answer," Campbell, who is UB distinguished professor of political science at the University of Buffalo, told Newsweek.

"When I wrote Polarized about five years ago, I would have emphatically said that people need to talk about politics at any opportunity and I continue to believe so, for the most part.

"The more we talk about politics, especially with those with whom we differ, the more we are likely to understand the basis of different opinions and think less harshly of those who differ with us."

Campbell said that while "differences in the abstract can be easily villainized," differences "with actual people sitting in front of us are more generally humanized—especially when we know people socially and deal with them on non-political matters."

One issue in discussions is that "differences are so intense and so grounded in different understandings of what the facts are," he said, leading conversations to "blow up" before there is any understanding of the other side's position.

"I think the best way to open the door to more wide-ranging and serious political conversations is for both sides to start talking about political issues and concerns they might have in common or, at least, might be less incendiary," Campbell said.

"Perhaps Trump and Let's Go Brandon should be left for after dessert and during half time of the football game. Let the turkey and stuffing settle a bit, before getting riled up."

He continued: "All of this might be less tendentious if there was agreement on basic facts, if people were taught how to argue properly—no ad hominems—and if people were encouraged to have thicker skins.

"It seems our society has grown worse on all three of these scores."

James Thurber, a distinguished professor at American University's department of government, also suggested more political conversation could be beneficial. But he warned that conducting these discussions civilly is not guaranteed.

"In a perfect world, we'd have a civil discussion," Thurber, who co-edited the book American Gridlock: The Sources, Character and Impact of Political Polarization, said. "I hope that the discussions about the issues of the day are civil and that they lead to a contagion of civility, but I do have doubts."

Some people, though, may prefer to play down or avoid any divisions when meeting in person: "I think most people try to reduce cognitive dissonance, they like to either agree with people they're around or they don't confront people with their differences."

Thurber said it's not only politics that will divide people at Thanksgiving. Where they live—some people will have traveled a long way to see each other—or their level of education also create differences.

These factors, alongside the mass of polarizing political subjects, make having discussions tough. "Today, we have so many issues that are confronting families and relatives," Thurber said.

Points of disagreement could break out from a raft of areas: The pandemic—such as vaccines and restrictions—is one; inflation is another; the scope of government amid the huge new spending commitments; and climate change.

"Where people will listen to each other depends on the nature of the family," Thurber said.

He also pointed to some people's immovability in their beliefs, particularly if the dispute comes down to a disagreement over the core facts.

For discussions to be fruitful, Thurber said there should be "certain norms of respect and civility." However, he suggested most people when they disagree with each other "don't want to have a seminar discussion."

"We need to have more knowledge about how politics and government work, how fragile democracy is and how important democracy is," Thurber said. "It gets back to simple conversations with family and neighbors. It gets worse if you don't talk, but sometimes it's hard to talk."

Online there is plenty of advice on how to swerve awkward political chats, highlighting that while some people might not want to engage in them, they might have to.

Switching talk to other topics is one suggestion for those hoping to dodge politics; having an understanding approach is another should discussion be unavoidable, helping to defuse tensions; some people may want to set ground rules before guests arrive.

A piece in Psychology Today, written by Courtney Forbes, M.A., M.Ed., and Anthony Chatham, M.D., on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates, however, on the side of having political discussions with friends and family.

The piece, entitled Maybe We Should Talk Politics at Thanksgiving?, suggests that people "lean into the conversation" if they are confronted with an opinion they're inclined to dismiss.

"Get curious. Ask questions. Ask yourself, 'Can I tolerate the discomfort this brings up for me in service of listening to understand?' You don't have to agree, and the existence of others' beliefs does not have to threaten yours, yet you can always listen with respect," the article says.

"We do have to acknowledge that there are instances where conversations can lead to others expressing beliefs that are prejudiced, oppressive, hostile, and certainly, in those instances, it is not possible to consider all peoples' beliefs equally.

"We also want to be clear that we are hoping these conversations happen in safe environments that are conducive to having meaningful conversations."

It also acknowledges that this might be difficult, but encourages reflection on what could be gained from working through that.

Ultimately, the decision to discuss politics or not is one which each family will make for themselves. Some might bond, some might argue.

But for those who find themselves at the center of a conflict, it will likely take open-mindedness and civility to turn the situation into a positive.

thanksgiving dinner stock photo
As families gather for Thanksgiving, some will be hoping to swerve the topics of politics, while others might fear clashes on the subject. Sariny Apinngam/Getty Images