Pass the Politics, Please: How to Handle a Bi-Partisan Thanksgiving

Nov 22, 2012 | Updated Jan 22, 2013

Sometime today, you will find yourself at a table full of family members, some of them familiar, some of them strange, and, likely, some of them among the 50-ish percent who don't share your political beliefs. Maybe there's your cousin, the Bill O'Reilly-obsessed student of white establishmentarianism. Or your bleeding heart liberal niece, who cries when she can't convince everyone to bundle up after dinner and pass out the leftovers to the neighborhood homeless. Or your Libertarian uncle who unhelpfully wonders, year after year, why can't we all just get along?

We know that the personal is political -- feminists coined the phrase back in the 1960s -- but never has that notion rung so true. The recent presidential election was, at many times, extremely personal. Some of the most prominent issues were ones that called on emotion as much as fact or policy. At the conventions, we heard tales of hardship that ranged from growing up black in the South to delivering babies prematurely. We saw tender moments between the candidates and their families. We saw Obama cry. We saw Chris Christie cry. We saw Mitt Romney -- get dust in his eye, maybe. The stakes were high, and so was the display of humanity. For many of us, the person or party we voted for spoke to who we are as people.

Which is why although we may be accustomed to, and even welcome, differences of opinion among family and friends in other arenas, politics often seems to warrant a less accepting view. We get defensive and argumentative. Views with which we don't agree might come as a shock, if not a personal blow: I have a mother who thinks that?

Get all those views around a dinner table; pour them a few glasses of wine, and trouble can happen.

Lila still gets angry when she thinks back to the 4th of July barbecue at her parents' Vermont summer house. Though her older sister, Kaci, claimed she was still a Democrat -- like Lila and their parents -- following her marriage to a wealthy conservative, she wasn't so sure anymore that Planned Parenthood should receive federal funding. Or that universal health care was such a good idea. "I mean, I'm pro-choice," Lila remembers her sister saying. "But do I need to pay for those people's abortions?" Yikes, thought Lila. What have you done with my sister? After an exchange filled with screams, tears, and, eventually, both sisters retreating to their rooms, slamming the doors, and vowing never to speak to the other again, their father made them agree to never talk politics again. For the sake of the family. And so Lila doesn't know how Kaci voted in the recent election, though she can make a pretty good guess.

Talking about politics can be healthy. Arguing about politics can even be healthy. Until, of course, it isn't. This Thanksgiving, you might not be able to control any one else at the table, but you can maintain your own civility, and sanity, and make it through a holiday in which feelings don't get hurt, slurs don't get thrown, and relatives aren't forced to intervene. Just keep a few key points at the forefront:

Go ahead and speak your mind -- but don't expect to change someone else's. When we try to convince others to see our political point of view, we very often fail. Which means that the argument you're about to embark on pretty likely won't change the other person's mind -- and will ruin your appetite besides. So before you shoot back a barbed response to your father's claim that your candidate is an [insert unflattering noun here], ask yourself if it's really worth the drama. In most cases, it won't be. Instead, try for an even-handed statement that states your truth and makes clear what your beliefs are, regardless of his. Instead of arguing, work to educate and widen perspectives, and then let go of what happens. It's a cliché, but it's relevant: Sometimes, we need to agree to disagree.

Choose your opponents wisely. Getting in -- and out -- of a heated exchange can be cleaner with immediate family members, who might be able to shrug off differences more easily. This isn't always the case with those you see once a year, whose personality quirks and methods of conversation may be less familiar to you. Also, chances are good your nephew's not going to give up his NRA card just because you make a convincing case. Why work yourself, and everyone else, up? Know when to stay silent. Have a piece of pie instead.

Stick to the facts. Your opinions are valid. But when discussing politics with those on any side but your own, it's often better to leave opinion out of it, and stick to the facts. Don't make generalizations. Don't roll your eyes when the other person speaks. Basically, don't be a badly behaved dinner guest!

Remember why you're here. Listen: It's Thanksgiving. You're with family. So give thanks. As we know from the election, not everyone is as fortunate. Even when you want nothing more than to hurl the mashed potatoes at your self-righteous, know-it-all brother, try to remember that you love your family members for reasons other than politics.

And maybe listen to what he's saying. Though it can be difficult not to take a family member's opposing view as a personal affront, make sure you're not just rejecting his ideas out of principle. Acknowledge your own perspective, and allow others to have theirs. The great thing about this country is that not everyone has to believe in the same things.

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at