Sherry Robinson, guest columnist

Looking forward to those family gatherings over the holidays? Or maybe not?

There’s that one relative who is all about politics. Or worse, two on opposite sides of the fence. Aunt Martha worries they’ll ruin dinner.

Research tells us these exchanges can be a good thing. Jennifer Wolak, a Michigan political science professor, finds that those discussions set the table for compromise and civility in national political discourse. That’s because if two people with different political views can have a reasonable give and take over Aunt Martha’s turkey or enchiladas, we will believe and even expect politicians to do the same. 

“The average American is still really keen on compromise,” Wolak writes.

Aunt Martha’s turkey reinforces social norms. Most people aren’t going to offend her or the rest of the family by shouting at each other. The professor concludes that social norms can be a powerful motivator for civility. 

At this point, you’re thinking about your own family and wondering if this could work.

In my family, all the holiday dinners I remember took place in my Aunt Grace’s mobile home, where she managed to get an astonishing number of people around the table to enjoy great food and each other’s company. People were happy to see each other and just wanted to catch up. I don’t remember a single political conversation.

Nowadays my cousins and I do have some strong political opinions, which we mostly don’t share because we value the relationship more. To the extent we’ve discussed anything, my position is always, we are blood, I love you, and I care far more about that than making a political point. I’m not going to end a relationship with family or friends because we vote differently.

The professor makes a good point, but I think these discussions need a foundation in place. The parties should understand they’re not going to change each others’ minds and be willing to listen.  

Two researchers, writing in a political science journal, give us a model.

“You wouldn’t try to convince a die-hard Alabama football fan not to be an Alabama football fan. You know that’s a losing battle. You might be able to convince someone that Alabama’s quarterback didn’t have a great game or that Auburn played well last week. The goal isn’t to convert the Alabama fan. The goal is to have a conversation about football that doesn’t rely on blind loyalty, (personal) attacks, or false accusations.”

Three learned folks wrote that most people don’t find these conversations all that bad. In fact, they may even be listening to each other. 

 “When you’re having these conversations, they can feel really frustrating, but actually you’re being influenced,” says a faculty member at Notre Dame. “It means you’re influencing your family as well. There is actually some element of productive discussion going on, even when it may not feel like it.”

More researchers, sorting through survey data, were unable to link a bad Thanksgiving to talking politics. “Americans appear to be largely successful at putting aside their political differences and enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with relatives and friends with whom they differ,” they wrote. The meaning I draw from that is that family dynamics – old grudges, dysfunction and personal differences – do more damage to a festive occasion than political debates.

Going back to my own family, I think we could all survive a political discussion with our mashed potatoes, even without the moderating influence of my Aunt Grace. I would not have said that before because I wouldn’t want to take the risk and because not talking about this stuff is a long habit. However, if thousands of such conversations could reduce the temperature nationally, it’s worth a try. 

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