Political science professor provides advice for politics on Thanksgiving

Elena Waldman

Conversations over a Thanksgiving meal may be sharper than the edge of the turkey cutting knife this year.

For many families, politics are easily put aside for a traditional gathering filled with joyous face-stuffing. But some might not find it as easy to avoid the elephant, or donkey, in the room.  Colorado State University American government and politics professor Matthew Hitt said although political civility seems unattainable for public figures, people can still strive for these types of conversations with friends and family. 

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“I think it would be wonderful if more ordinary people in the mass public listened to and engaged with people who disagreed with them politically with respect,” Hitt said. “The fact that we don’t have a history of great civility in political elite competition doesn’t mean it’s not something to strive for in our own interaction with people that we know. Especially people that we care about.”

Recognize that persuasion in political conversation is insanely hard … So maybe (try to) not make that the goal in Thanksgiving political discussion. Instead, maybe put yourself in the headspace of trying to learn something.”– Matthew Hitt, CSU American Government & Politics Professor

Hitt said although politics can be a tricky subject, there may be some things people can consider to navigate these conversations more smoothly.

“One of the things we need to do is protect identity,” Hitt said. “To have a difficult conversation, it’s important to be affirmative of the other person’s value and worth. In a more explicit way than you might normally do in (a different) conversation. To acknowledge that the other person is smart, has thought things through (and) is a good person … actually affirm that, and then try and engage with the ideas.”

Hitt said because people’s political affiliations can be central to their identities, it is important for people to recognize that opposing views still have value.

“Different kinds of folks think about political issues differently,” Hitt said. “Some individuals think of things in terms of values. On the other hand, some folks think about politics in terms of pragmatics, or end goals. If one person is thinking about pragmatic end goals and the other is thinking about values, you’re gonna talk past each other all night long. Try and really listen to your conversation partner and say ‘Are the making appeals based on outcomes, or based on values?’”

Thanksgiving dinner table with biscuits, turkey, sweet potato and fruit.
Sometimes, a Thanksgiving meal can open the door for civil and productive conversations. Other times, people may just be stuffing their faces with delicious food. Collegian File Photo

In this way, conversations with any opposing side, albeit politics or the best sports team, can make the people involved feel like they’re hitting a wall. However, when people try to get to the root of others’ beliefs, they can start to break through that wall and come to a common understanding. This doesn’t necessarily mean everyone will agree at the end of the day, but it does mean they might walk away with something important.

One of the many misconceptions people have about going into political conversations is they will somehow be able to persuade someone to change their view on an issue. Hitt said this is very unlikely, and can sometimes be inflammatory.

“Recognize that persuasion in political conversation is insanely hard,” Hitt said. “We shouldn’t expect that a 50-minute conversation is going to make someone abandon the belief that feels essential to (their) identity. So maybe (try to) not make that the goal in Thanksgiving political discussion. Instead, maybe put yourself in the headspace of trying to learn something.”

Many people feel as though getting all the issues out through conversation is productive when actually, research shows that a healthy amount of boundaries are more beneficial to good relationships. According to Psych Central writer Jane Collingwood, “Setting clear personal boundaries is the key to ensuring relationships are mutually respectful, supportive and caring.” 

Elena Waldman can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter, @WaldmanElena. 

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