Why Do I Avoid Polarization (not Politics) at Thanksgiving Dinner?

About 15 years ago at a reunion in the Wyoming mountains, the elder generation started talking politics over dinner. Being a twenty-something scholar of Facebook and cable news, I tuned out the other noise and listened in. I nodded at the points well put and shrugged off a few that missed the mark. I stiffened, however, as one of them began voicing opinions thoroughly outside my echo chamber.

I didn’t know her very well, but someone had to point out that her philosophy was bunk. In my eyes she instantly changed from pleasant in-law to political opponent. I’d trained for this moment. I cleared my throat and inspected my arsenal of arguments. Victory was definitely mine. She was listing the virtues of socialized medicine when I raised my challenge. 

“But if you get your way,” I said, “medical innovation will die. And who will be helped by that?”

They looked at me, and must have seen on my face that this was not casual conversation. She shifted her posture to face me. It was on. 

We somehow abandoned health care and bounced from issue to hot-button issue. Our battle was epic. I blocked her assertions on gun policy and fired back impenetrable logic on abortion. After circling each other on bank bailouts, I tossed her a ready-made worldview on immigration.

I glanced at the fifteen or so aunts, uncles, and cousins caught in the crossfire, expecting an encouraging nod. Instead, they looked down at their plates, visibly uncomfortable. But how could I stop? Backing down would admit defeat.

Twenty minutes in, nobody had changed their minds about anything. In fact, the only thing we learned was how long an argument can go when both sides need to have the last word.

We were on wealth inequality when we finally exhausted our ammunition, said something lame like “We’ll just agree to disagree,” and the party cautiously resumed. Despite defending my political team that day, I didn’t gain any victories furthering my political cause, and the only result was a weakened family relationship. 

Our dinner conversations are a microcosm of America as a whole. Can you feel the division? We were never meant to all think alike—hashing out differences is as American as peanut butter and jelly—but our discord has made disagreeing toxic and ineffective. We are trading the principled Battlefield of Ideas for the anything-goes Cage Match of Ideologues.

My failed crusade at that party was like a late-night fast food stop: it felt great in the moment, but I soon regretted it. And after further reflection I launched into a years-long quest to find a better way.

My goal changed from converting or shaming my political adversary to understanding them. From achieving the ultimate mic-drop to seeking out nuance. 

I crossed party lines and attended their meetings. I scoured social media and dove into the most turbulent brawls in search of my new holy grail: Common Ground. The result? I gained startling clarity on not only their positions, but my own. I discovered a forgotten art of fully engaging in politics while at the same time strengthening family and community bonds. I learned that we can have a high level of unity even while disagreeing on important issues—something I wouldn’t have thought was possible (or even desirable) before.

Wishing I had developed these skills earlier in life, I even wrote a YA novel to teach it to my teens. I no longer want them to simply take my worldview as their own, but to empower them to think critically and fully engage with the world around them as they navigate their future.

In hopes that our Thanksgivings will refrain from looking like a Twitter beef, I’d like to suggest one practice that I’ve found to be helpful. It’s a simple form of mental training one can do ahead of the next family gathering. Picture the homes in your neighborhood with the political yard signs or the provocative bumper stickers. You know, the ones that vote differently than you. Instead of rolling your eyes or tightening your grip on the steering wheel the next time you drive by, consider one of these four thoughts:

1. I wonder what experiences led them to this conclusion?

  • Develop a genuine curiosity about your neighbor’s thought process. If their opinion seems absolutely bonkers to you, that’s a sign that there is likely more to the story. Even if it  feels like they “are out to destroy the best parts of this nation,” like you, they probably have their logical conclusions fueled by their best intentions.
  • Do your best to reason through it. At the end of the conversation you might say, “I still don’t agree with you, but I can see how you got there.” Contrary to what I had previously believed, learning other viewpoints of the world doesn’t weaken your position. In fact, it makes you more effective at understanding, discussing, and even persuading.

2. Are we both trying to solve the same problem?

  • Dig until you find the bedrock of Common Ground. While your chosen paths may be at odds with each other, in the end, are you both striving for the commonwealth of everyone?  Are your opposite stances still en route to protect the less fortunate? To secure rights for you and your family? Attempt to find how the roots of your political beliefs overlap positively for our country.

3. It’s the ideas that are a problem.

  • I’m seeing a troubling, even dangerous statement from all sides, that “those guys are the problem.” This isn’t the mindset we want to have toward our neighbors, especially if a real crisis were to hit. Instead, be painfully, annoyingly clear that it’s the actions and ideas and policies that you see as problems, not the people themselves.
  • Choose words that humanize the humans and objectify their objectives. Use laser-guided precision when you challenge a view, leaving the person holding it unscathed.

4. They are Americans.

  • We’ve worn out our political label-makers as we insist on sorting each other by party — as conservatives or progressives, and with such terms as “woke” or “MAGA,” often intended as insults. Break the habit of using language that reinforces the tribe, and remind yourself that they are also Americans, just like you.

These steps aren’t perfect, but they’ve worked for me. Perhaps, try them out this holiday season? Who knows, you might discover your natural ability to approach touchy subjects in effective and productive ways. It’s not that  you should be neutral on everything, or consider all viewpoints as objectively correct. I still have my political opinions that I’ll respectfully stand up for at the right time. But if our vision for America can only be achieved by shouting down the other side, we may be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

I’ve found a new way to coexist. I’m taking these small steps to not only avoid regrettable party interactions, but to regain the harmony our Republic is longing for. Despite our substantial differences, I’m convinced that we can become the true United States of America.

See? We may not have to ban politics at Thanksgiving after all.

Jefferson Shupe

Jefferson Shupe

Jefferson Shupe is a software developer and writer. He enjoys mountain biking with his family and spending time as a volunteer for FAIR (Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism). Jefferson is the author of the YA novel The Bathwater Brigade, and is currently working on a companion teacher's guide per reader request. Twitter: @JeffersonShupe

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