A Thanksgiving Myth Debunked: People Aren’t Fighting About Politics

With millions of Americans choosing not to visit loved ones this Thanksgiving out of caution over the coronavirus, a lot of small rituals will get passed over in the process.

No shared turkey dinners, no football-watching parties in the TV room, no wondering aloud what stuffing is actually made of. And none of those famous, knock-down-drag-out fights with your relatives over politics. Right?

Sort of. Those storied fights might never have been such a big part of the tradition to begin with. Like many aspects of the story that this holiday commemorates, brutal family infighting over politics is more myth than reality.

“I’m Italian, so my family fights about anything and everything,” said Matthew Dean, 34, a construction project manager living in Pittsburgh. “They can agree with each other and still be arguing.”

Mr. Dean is a Republican who supports President Trump, while other members of his family, including his father, dislike the president. He said they’re usually able to disagree without being too disagreeable.

“From an outsider’s perspective, it would be arguing, but it never ruined any family time together,” Mr. Dean said, describing the raucous scene at past Thanksgiving dinners. “I think we have a greater sense of the bonds that hold us together as family and friends. And we don’t allow the politics to get above that.”

Two years ago, a survey by The Associated Press and NORC, an independent research group at the University of Chicago, found that just 9 percent of American parents with adolescent or young-adult children reported having had a holiday gathering ruined by family disagreements over politics. Online, it was a different story: The same parents were twice as likely to say that they had unfriended or blocked a family member for political reasons.

“The vast majority of Americans have no interest in discussing politics,” Samara Klar, a professor of political science at the University of Arizona, said in an interview. “Politics is important when it arises, but for most people it’s not something that they are excited to bring up at dinner.”

For most Americans, politics isn’t anywhere near their favorite conversation topic. Dr. Klar said that while studies have shown that American parents would generally prefer to see their children marry someone of the same political persuasion, her own research went a level further — and found that the even stronger desire was for their children to marry someone who simply won’t force them to discuss politics all that much.

“They just don’t want somebody who talks about politics all the time,” she said. “Partisan identity will always fall dead last,” she added. “Behind their gender, family role, their nationality, their race.”

As a result, if coming together at the holidays means dealing with an outspoken relative of a different political stripe, the most common response may simply be flight — not fight.

A study of Thanksgiving diners in 2016 matched up anonymized smartphone-location data with precinct-level voting information, and found that when relatives visited each other from areas with opposite political leanings, their meals together tended to be measurably shorter.

This tracks with a separate study from 2016, “Political Chameleons: An Exploration of Conformity in Political Discussions,” finding that people would often prefer to avoid talking politics over openly disagreeing about them.

“If you have somebody who’s really vocal politically, they’re going to dominate the discussion,” said Yanna Krupnikov, a Stony Brook University political scientist who has collaborated with Dr. Klar. “You’re not necessarily going to have people fight with them — you’re more likely to have people agree politely and just leave a little early.”

Over the past few decades, as polarization has grown, families have in fact become more politically homogeneous.

Kent Tedin, a professor of political science at the University of Houston, cited research he has done in recent years picking up on data compiled since the 1960s by Kent Jennings at the University of Michigan. It found that married, heterosexual couples are now far more likely to be politically aligned than they were 50 years ago — or even a couple decades ago.

Dr. Klar said that her research has indicated that this trend is driven in part by the fact that, since the feminist movement’s second wave in the mid-20th century, women have grown more directly engaged in politics — and have become more likely to put a priority on finding a husband with whom they agree politically.

The same thing goes for parents and their children. On matters of partisanship and political views — including a measurement that academics call the “racial resentment scale” — young people are far more likely to hold similar views to their parents than they were in the mid-1970s, or even in the 1990s.

As a result, Dr. Tedin said, at the Thanksgiving table, “if there is a disagreement, almost anybody in the nuclear family — mom, dad and the kids — is going to be on one side, and the cousins are going to be on the other side.”

But mostly, they’re likely to tiptoe around one another. “Polarized politics increases avoidance within families,” he said. “You might think polarized politics means they’re going to be fighting at Thanksgiving, but no — it’s the reverse. Polarized politics increases the pressure to avoid conflict at the holiday.”

The inclination to avoid conflict doesn’t necessarily mean that disagreement is inevitable if the conversation does turn to politics. Matthew Levendusky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies political polarization, said that when those kinds of conflicts do come up, they aren’t necessarily likely to become hostile. And whether hard or easy, Dr. Levendusky added, those conversations are fundamental to the functioning of a democracy — especially in a time when social media and cable news often play up each party’s most extreme elements.

In 2016, Dr. Levendusky published a study showing that people tended to vastly overestimate the differences between the two parties. “We asked people where their position was, and where they thought the average Republican and Democratic positions were,” he said. “Basically, they thought the parties were twice as far apart as they are in reality, on a wide variety of issues.”

Now he is at work on a book about how people with differing perspectives might overcome their political animus. Simply talking to one another, he said, is essential to bridging the divide — and it’s often not as painful as people expect it to be. That’s because most Americans are not deeply ideological, so political disagreements are not terribly high-stakes for them. In completing the research for the book, he and his collaborators convened roughly 500 study participants from across the political spectrum, and invited them to talk about politics.

Dr. Levendusky found that participants were pleasantly surprised by the experience: “A number of people came up to me afterward and said, ‘I wasn’t sure I was going to like this, but I found all these people who thought like me, even if we weren’t on the same political side.’”

Still, for many families, the primary goal this holiday is to find anything other than politics to talk about.

Antonette Iverson, 27, said that her extended family in Detroit would be celebrating Thanksgiving remotely this year, saying grace over a Zoom call and then retreating to separate holiday meals. She doesn’t expect anyone would want to talk much about politics even if they were getting together, she said, adding that her family is mostly of a like mind about the presidential election anyway.

“I don’t think there needs to be a discussion,” she said. “We’re all pretty exhausted with the situation.”

Kathleen Gray contributed reporting.

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