Talking politics with conservative relatives on Thanksgiving doesn't have to be thankless. Here are five easy ways to talk to Republican family members that will help keep your Turkey Day peaceful.
This post is based on a segment I did on Take Action News with David Shuster on October 27th. It is in the last 10 minutes of the third hour of the show, which is available as a podcast here.
First, a little of my personal story. My immediate family is all Democrats. But when you get past that in the family tree, I've got a lot of variation. On the one hand, my mother's two brothers are extremely left-wing -- more so than I am. During the Clinton years, they used to vote for Ralph Nader. I think when George W. Bush was elected they became convinced that it might be better to vote for the lesser of two evils.
But at least those uncles I agree with on most issues.
On the other hand, the vast majority of people on my dad's side of the family -- aunts, uncles, cousins and of course my grandparents -- are, at this point, staunch conservatives. They are not really socially conservative, but they are very economically conservative, and very hawkish on foreign policy.
These conservative relatives never cease to tease me and challenge me about my views. That's because not only am I a progressive in my beliefs system, but in my day job at Social Security Works, I'm also a professional progressive. It can get heated, but it's never done with malice. I've become the family liberal, and they like having someone who can fill that role.
Still, I wouldn't have succeeded in cultivating my family's respect, or avoiding constantly losing my temper, if I hadn't developed some good coping mechanisms for Thanksgiving and other family immersion events.
Here are my top 5 ways to deal with Republican or conservative relatives, starting with the least effective and most conflict inducing:
5. Have a really, really nasty drawn out personal fight. It'll be like a nuclear blast, because after that no one's gonna wanna talk about it again. So you go into it, you call the guy a babykiller, or rather, a warmongering Muslim-hater or something like that, who enjoys murder and drones and kill lists, or wants to starve children in the inner city. Make it really nasty and personal. Just have it all out. Let them get it all out on you too. It could take 2 or 3 hours. This is like loading a really big program on your old Windows 3.1 computer. But the peace that would come afterward could last years. Then you'll have a code of silence and you could just talk sports and things like that.
One more thing: If you haven't done this well in advance of Thanksgiving, it may be wise to wait until after the holiday. That way there will be enough time to let the dust settle before next year's feast.
4. Put words in their mouth. #4 actually goes well with #5. This is not meant as a way to lie about their position willy-nilly, so much as a ploy to make them grapple with the possible real-life implications of their policy stances. For example, you can say: "Oh so you're against the Affordable Care Act so you want children to starve, or you want children to die in hospitals? You're in favor of making sick people die." Without fail, they'll deny it right away, saying, "Well, no, I never said that." To which you respond in turn, "Well, you know, if you prevent children with chronic illnesses from getting health care due to preexisting conditions then that's what you're effectively doing." Don't let them change topics until you've gotten them to clearly articulate their moral positions in particular situations. They might say you have a point.
3. Make it hit home. Your relatives may not have been able to put a human face on their abstract image of economically insecure people. But chances are, even if they are wealthy, they have people in their lives, who they respect and care about, who are not. Here's how you might put it: "You know cousin Seymour? He's been wheelchair-bound since the accident. And we don't often think about it, but we'd all have to chip in if Medicaid didn't pick up his bills." All of a sudden you might be talking to the world's biggest Medicaid advocate.
2. Jiu Jitsu. In other words, take your family members positions of strength on these issues -- or the issues that they care about most politically -- and basically just try to get them to think that the candidates or positions you support actually achieve their goals better than the positions that they hold. Oh, you're for national security? Well the Iraq War just emboldened Iran and put allied government in power next door. How terrible is that for Israel or America's democracy agenda! Or Barack Obama killed Osama bin Laden, he's your better national security candidate.
This can be tricky, because you don't want to sell out your own principles. They'll call you out on it eventually. If like many people you think that America's democracy agenda is, in reality, nonexistent, you can still try to get a relative to admit a particular candidate who she dislikes, is more sympathetic to her interests than she might have thought.
If on the other hand, you claim one of the reasons you support health care reform is that it is good for American capitalism, you may not want the relative you are talking to find your International Socialist Organization paraphernalia. In short, don't lie. It undermines your credibility.
1. Find common ground. This amounts to honestly, sincerely, finding areas of agreement and emphasizing them more than areas of disagreement. If you can say, "We all agree that it's a good idea that we should at least have a little bit of Social Security, or a little bit of Medicare, even though you [cousin] wanna cut it, or privatize it." Or, you know, maybe, "We all agree that we want opportunity in America." Or maybe there are some specific policy issues where you can agree, like getting tough on trade with China, or being for a woman's right to choose -- whatever the case may be, depending on the situation. Then, the other disagreements you have may not be as extreme, may not be as personal and venomous and poisonous.
Eventually, if you are a Jedi-level Republican family maneuverer, you can employ all of these tactics at once. It is an elegant art form.
Until then, these things take time. Happy Thanksgiving.
Views expressed are his own.