This Thanksgiving promises to be perhaps the most politically divisive in American history. In dining rooms across the country, lifelong relationships will be tested. Family members will struggle to control their tempers. The feet of innumerable in-laws will be kicked. Countless meals will descend into awkward silence, tensions aggravated by the clinking of silverware on porcelain.
It is a dread felt especially by liberals and progressives. With post-election feelings still raw, many of us are considering skipping family gatherings for the first time in years. Others plan to attend but avoid political talk at all costs.
While understandable, it is essential to resist these instincts. You must attend Thanksgiving and you should engage in political conversation, especially if your family is divided politically. Why? For at least two reasons. First, because now more than ever we must rescue a sense of common humanity across political lines. Second, because we must begin to build a successful resistance to the Trump regime immediately. We have just two years until the most important midterm elections of our lives, and four years until the prospect of a more complete escape from these dark times. The millions of conversations we will need to have to affect massive change must begin now. Your Thanksgiving table should be viewed not as a Civil War battlefield, but instead as a revolutionary cell.
Persuasion in our political climate is an intimidating charge. Fortunately, behavioral scientists have explored this terrain, generating insights and techniques that may be helpful to you:
Communicate Respect. Perhaps the biggest propellants of polarization are the deep feelings of partisan animosity felt on both the left and right. A profound distrust pervades our political discourse. Many conservatives assume that liberals view conservatives as unsophisticated bigots, a presumption that clearly impedes our efforts to persuade.
To counteract this, you can start by simply listening. Try to better understand your family member’s perspective. Seek out points of common ground. Perhaps advance a criticism of some aspect of your own side. Do not call your cousin a crypto-fascist.
Use Moral Reframing. But we should not only seek understanding and respect. We should also begin to make progress. One effective technique is moral reframing. As I explain in a recent TEDx talk, this involves explaining how your political position is consistent with the values of the person you’re trying to persuade. My colleague Matthew Feinberg and I find that the method can be effective in persuading conservatives to take more liberal positions on same-sex marriage, national health insurance, environmental protection, and Donald Trump.
If you’re a liberal talking to a conservative, this involves looking for ways that your position fits with values like group loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority, moral purity, or religious sanctity. So, if you want a family member to appreciate your view on undocumented immigration, you might explain how immigrants are loyal and proud Americans who want to provide for their families and be a part of American society. Their hard work and struggle contributes to our communities and epitomizes the American dream.
Speak to Interests. Research finds that people don’t just vote their principles, they also vote their interests. Many voters this year overlooked Trump’s obscenity, misogyny, and racism because they felt real economic anxiety, anxiety they believed Trump would be more likely to allay than Clinton. If your Trump-supporting uncle is working class, you can assure him that the Democratic party has heard this message (losing Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin makes it pretty unambiguous) and is working now to assemble an economic platform that will strongly support the well-being of working class Americans of all ethnicities and genders (note that we do not know that this is true yet, but if it isn’t, we have even bigger problems than you misleading your uncle...).
Harness Empathy. While empathy generally drives the views of liberals more than conservatives, it is nonetheless a fundamental human faculty, and thus a potential avenue for persuading conservative family members. In particular, Trump voters are mostly detached from the perspectives of undocumented immigrants and Muslim Americans. If you personally know an undocumented immigrant or Muslim who is deeply concerned for their safety and well-being in Trump’s America, relating their perspective is essential.
Visualize Success. Conjure a vision of yourself hitting all the right notes: a self-deprecating joke at the smugness of liberals such as yourself. A reasonable concession on an economic policy or two. A principled stand on an issue of basic humanity. A cleverly timed generous offer of wine or beer. A suggested middle ground that sounds like a compromise but is in fact the opposite of everything Donald Trump stands for.
Begin with Moderate Goals. The path of political coalition building is hardly linear, and you should expect setbacks. Even now you may hear counter-revolutionary forces gathering (dismounting their horses, they drink deeply from the gravy boats...). It is wise to approach political persuasion with achievable goals. In the end you may do nothing more than soften hard feelings. In an election outcome that some say turned to a great extent on conservatives’ resentment of perceived liberal elitism, breaking down that stereotype may in fact be an essential first step in a multi-year effort to transform your Republican family into an anarcho-syndacalist utopian collective.
Ours will be a many year effort, requiring literally millions of grassroots conversations. To succeed, we will have to overcome bitter differences, forge real human connections, and build trust. Many of us on the left are angry, and with very good reason. It is important that we channel that anger to fight to restore justice to our country.
But at the same time, to be effective we must also be strategic. Being persuasive in a political conversation is much like the aphorism about catching a butterfly: you catch it only when you stop trying to, letting it alight upon you. And so goes success in a political conversation where the most persuasive people are often those who talk less, who regulate their feelings, carefully picking the right place to make a well-crafted appeal.
If we are to bring this country back from the brink it will require relentless code-switching. Our anger, determination, and resistance is important fuel, but must be reserved for like-minded groups. When we reach across the political divide, our warmth, respect, empathy, and calm are critical resources. Good luck to you in your efforts this Thanksgiving. Let this be the beginning of our successful resistance.