Why American families must talk about politics this Thanksgiving

Why American families must talk about politics this Thanksgiving
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If there is one thing that unites us this Thanksgiving, it is anxiety about how much divides us. Will Uncle Ed wear his “MAGA” hat all dinner? How long will the boyfriend your sister brought home lecture the table on the carbon footprint of turkey husbandry? Then you have your know it all neighbor waiting to inform everyone that the capital of Ukraine is really pronounced “Keeeev” when the issue of impeachment comes up.

The fear that families lack the skills and civility to have constructive discussions about politics is well founded. Within a country increasingly sorted by partisan, geographic, and generational differences, many of us have little experience engaging those with differing views on politics. One recent, albeit slightly creepy, study used mobile phone location data to show that families spend less time together at Thanksgiving when family members come from politically dissimilar parts of the country.

When planning your Thanksgiving strategy, it is important to remember that the true legacy of this tradition is freighted conversation among people with little in common. Nearly 400 years ago, Pilgrims and Indians met for the first debate about immigration on the continent. They had a lot at stake and reasons for mistrust, yet they were able to reconcile their differences and enjoy 50 years of largely peaceful coexistence. The notion that we should keep politics away from Thanksgiving is also at odds with the motivation for why it became a national holiday in the first place.


In 1789, little more than one year after the ratification of the Constitution, George Washington elevated Thanksgiving with a proclamation that was a victory lap for his new and vulnerable government. In a masterstroke of political messaging, Washington asked all Americans to give thanks for “the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness.” In 1863, Abraham Lincoln seized the opportunity to make Thanksgiving a holiday, calling on his fellow citizens to “heal the wounds of the nation and restore it as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.”

In our current political climate, it is difficult to imagine political leaders drawing the country together around our shared values and common purpose. Instead, we must recognize that civility is a national obligation and a personal responsibility. If we cannot discuss issues we care about with people we care about, it is hard to expect our elected officials to do much better. At the Bipartisan Policy Center, we understand the risk and exhilaration of engaging tough, often emotional, topics and developing meaningful agreements. We also know that conversation flourishes when we find moments to take ourselves less seriously than the issues we work on. That is why we developed a bipartisan Thanksgiving survival guide, which presents some ideas to encourage lively discussion of important issues along with fun political trivia and games for the children.

Before asking friends and colleagues to talk politics this Thanksgiving, we decided to test drive the idea. Last week, we gathered an ideologically disparate group of elected leaders, journalists, and advocates together for a bipartisan Thanksgiving dinner. The gathering itself was a bit of a risk as several participants had spent the prior hours embattled in impeachment hearings. Despite a long day of rancor, the eagerness of our guests to sit, eat, laugh, and debate together demonstrated that our common values and commitments remain strong enough to sustain our divisions.

Our guests offered advice for families looking to talk about politics. Representative Derek Kilmer, a Democrat from Washington, explained, “Good democracy is a little like a good marriage. We do not necessarily have to agree with each other on everything. But perhaps we are better off when we can talk to each other and listen to each other, and not have every interaction turn into the Jerry Springer Show.” If tensions flare, Representative Jack Bergman, a Republican from Michigan, suggests a walk with the person you disagree with. Recalling a Thanksgiving with a friend who did not share his politics, he said, “We saw the beautiful nature, the sky, the stars, and remembered who we are as Americans.”

This Thanksgiving, millions of Americans across the country will go around the table expressing gratitude for family, friends, health, and happiness. We hope that you will also take a moment to acknowledge the democracy that sustains our freedom and achievement. While our system of government has demonstrated great resilience over the past 240 years, it is not invulnerable to the divisions and alienation we feel today. At the close of the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “What have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” He famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Good luck to us all this Thanksgiving.

Jason Grumet is president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.