Tips for Surviving the Political Divide Over Thanksgiving Dinner

Sloan Savage

Spending Thanksgiving with extended family and loved ones can result in divisive conversations and political topics. Signal Associate Sloan Savage provides helpful insight into navigating these discussions during this holiday season.

In America, November is the kick-off of the holiday season. For most people this means heading home and spending time with family. Many of us are familiar with the stereotypical Thanksgiving dinner – all members of the family gathered around the table to share stories from the past year, catch up on each other’s lives and discuss what’s going on in the world. But anyone who has experienced a Thanksgiving dinner with extended family knows that it rarely lives up to the glowing Norman Rockwell expectation.

Rather than picture-perfect time with family, the day is often a minefield for mayhem. Keeping kids off their phones so they don’t upset the grandparents, making sure your uncle doesn’t insult someone’s cooking, and avoiding leaving a certain over-serving relative in charge of refreshments.

In addition to these normal challenges, our nation’s political environment is sure to be a divisive topic at the table this year. With today’s headlines focused on impeachment, democratic debates and the 2020 election, the polarization our country is facing is permeating conversation.

As a recent transplant to D.C., I’ve experienced this polarization in a new way. Growing up in a bipartisan family familiarized me with different viewpoints coming from all around the table. However, having a permanent address inside-the-beltway has shown me just how hard it can be for people to get outside of their political party bubble to connect with people around different viewpoints.

In her newest book, Our Broken America, Jackie Gingrich Cushman highlights a statistic on bipartisan friendships in the US; 64 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans have few or no friends in the other party. With a divide like this it’s easy to see how people can become close-minded to the ideas of others. In fact, a recent study by Pew Research Center found that 75% of Democrats and 64% of Republicans say members of the opposing party are “more closed-minded” than other Americans. When we only interact in political echo chambers with like-minded people, it’s hard to learn anything new.

As I head home for a week of family time and the inevitable conversation on what’s happening in Washington, I’m hoping to break out of this pattern by looking at the conversation as a learning opportunity.

Two women with opposite political affiliations recently wrote a book called “I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening).” The book emphasizes the importance of sharing your values gracefully by standing firm in your beliefs, but still respecting the views of others by listening to what they have to say. When we listen to someone else’s thoughts, we may not change our minds, but we can at least try to understand their perspective. By showing our loved one’s grace and giving them the time and space to share their opinions, we create a productive environment where people can learn from one another.

A popular saying in my family is “agree to disagree.” We don’t all have to be the same, look the same or think the same, but we do have to be kind and respectful to one another. If after listening to each other’s opinions we still don’t agree, that’s okay. We don’t have to have the same views to maintain a relationship, much less to keep the conversation pleasant while passing the turkey.

People with opposing values can forge friendships that go beyond their views and are based simply on kindness. Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and former President George W. Bush were recently photographed sitting together at a Dallas Cowboys NFL game. Americans reacted in shock at the unlikely friendship. Instead of celebrating the fact that two people with fundamentally opposite beliefs were able to enjoy time together, people were angry. “We’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s okay.”

Ellen’s reminder is something we can all benefit from this Thanksgiving. “When I say, ‘be kind to one another,’ I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

Our Thanksgiving dinners don’t have to become a battle zone of opinions. Whether or not we agree with our family or have learned something new by listening to them, at the very least, we can still be kind and thankful.