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How to Survive a Politics-Heavy Thanksgiving Dinner

Ian Freimuth

RAYGUN, the snarky clothing company based out of Des Moines, has made hand towels emblazoned with a donkey, elephant and the words ‘Thank You For Not Discussing the Election” encircled and crossed through, just in time for Thanksgiving. After one of the most divisive elections in modern American history, Thanksgiving dinner will be undoubtedly dicey conversational territory for many Iowans.

But, not all experts agree that avoidance is the best strategy for handling contentious political discussions.

“Run toward the fire. Which feels wrong. It feels like the opposite of your instinct to engage, to not avoid politically differently minded family members. To avoid political subtext entirely, it may seem like that’s the right thing to do, but I actually think that this could be the beginning of bringing the country back together. We can use family to get there,” says Robb Willer, Professor of Sociology and Psychology at Stanford University and a University of Iowa grad.

That doesn’t mean that you have to convince an aunt to flip political sides entirely. Willer suggests starting with an open mind and a discussion of deeper, philosophical values that work towards empathy.

“If we wanted to turn the heat down on this conflict, I think it really does start with some sort of empathy. It doesn’t even have to be the kind of empathy where you say ‘Oh, you know, I support Donald Trump, too. My uncle is right.’ It just has to be understanding their perspective,” Willer says.

Volker Thomas, a couple and family therapist at the Iowa City Counseling Center, says that the most important thing to focus on is not invalidating another family member’s feelings.

“What is needed is courage. Courage to allow yourself to be who you are and to respect the other family members. We can’t go into Thanksgiving and expect that our family does the job that our politicians have not been doing. That’s not going to work.”

He says that because family roles don’t magically disappear when political discussion comes up, the conversation is even more fraught than it would be with a close friend.

“The emotions that are associated with that can run so high, that then it becomes really a matter of ‘Oh, this is not about political differences anymore; this is about whether you accept me as your daughter, whether you accept me as your father.”

In this hour of Talk of Iowa, host Charity Nebbe talks with Thomas and Willer about the sociology and psychology of conversational tactics, familial fights, and the importance of political identity to our sense of self.

A few different approaches to Thanksgiving political discussion:

Re-imagine your movie

Robb Willer gave a Tedx Talk where he couches the concept of political differences in the language of movies.

“We’re all tempted to think we’re in some sort of zombie apocalypse movie, where the zombies are raiding against us, they don’t think for themselves, they’re just this mindless mass and they’re going to ruin the country. You always think that you are the good guy in the zombie apocalypse movie, you and people that think like you. But what we have to remember is that people that support the other party, the other end of the ideological spectrum, they think they’re the good guy.”

Instead of framing it that way, he prefers thinking of this election as a buddy cop movie.

“There’s a messy cop, an organized cop, whatever it is, a black cop and a white cop. They get along in the end despite these differences that once divided them and then when they do, this feeling of solidarity that they can achieve is greater because they had to clear this divide. And I’d like that to be the future that we work towards.”

Use comedy as an avoidance tactic

RAYGUN is selling coasters that declare:

“For the safety of all at this meal, please steer talk away from:

  • The Wall
  • The Electoral College
  • She won the popular vote
  • Do we know for sure he really grabbed them?
  • Systemic sexism in America
  • When do you think they’ll lock her up?
  • My theory on why he won…”

Try out Twitter

Volker Thomas suggests an alternate form of communication might help loosen up the conversation.

“Younger people are socialized in social media, which means they don’t get direct feedback to what they say. There’s a lag in there. So what I’ve done and that could easily be done over Thanksgiving, is instead of not going into social media over Thanksgiving is to have two hours, maybe instead of watching football, for everybody who is on Twitter tweet each other. And then see what changes. I did that a couple of months ago with a family and they came back and said, ‘Wow, I never knew how different a conversation on Twitter is from a conversation face to face.’ For some of the family members, it made them more cautious and more reflective in thinking about what they were going to say before they said it.” 

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa