As Americans come together for Thanksgiving, they are divided: a recent Harris Poll for the Instacart Grocery Delivery Company found almost half of Americans find the canned variety of cranberries “disgusting.”
Politics has become one of the other polarizing elements of the holiday. Though most Minnesotans — about seven of every 10 — talk politics with family and friends at least once a week, over a third of have stopped talking with at least one person due to politics, according to a recent survey conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Polarization is to blame, says Paul Goren, chair of the University of Minnesota’s Political Science Department. President Donald Trump has a “unique ability to fire up Republicans and alienate Democrats,” Goren said.
But Trump’s election is a consequence, not the cause, of such polarization, said Goren. America’s divisions have been growing wider for several decades, with politics becoming more about winning and less about solving problems, which manifests in our political conversations. Rather than having civil discussions that seek common ground or at least end with agreement to disagree, talk devolves into a competition to come out on top.
Grant Rockwood, a Republican of Minneapolis, is in that one-third. He stopped talking with his mother over their political disagreements for months. But he is joining his family for Thanksgiving in Elk River, bringing a new girlfriend and crossing his fingers that politics doesn’t make the menu. “I don’t need to go there,” he said.
The poll was conducted for the Hubbard School by Strategic Research Group, an Ohio-based strategic research firm. Results are based on 707 completed responses from a representative sample of Minnesotans who were invited to participate using an address-based approach. The responses were collected Oct. 2 through Oct. 31. The margin of error for the survey is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points, though margins are larger when breaking down subgroups of the sample.
According to the U survey, strong partisans were more likely to cut off communicating over politics: 44 percent compared to 27 percent among those who are not strong partisans.
The survey also suggests suburban Minnesotans were less likely to have cut ties over politics than their urban and rural counterparts, though the results fell within the margins of error. Just 26 percent reported that they quit talking to someone over politics. That compares to 32 percent of rural residents and 39 percent of urbanites.
“There’s more churn, more diversity, and so it’s easier to find people who disagree with you in the suburbs, but because there’s more of them, maybe it’s not quite so judgmental,” Goren said.
Democrats who responded to the survey were more likely to have stopped talking to someone than were Republicans, though the difference is also within the margin of error.
A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that “people with down-the-line ideological positions – especially conservatives – are more likely than others to say that most of their close friends share their political views.” The survey also found that “partisan animosity has increased substantially” over the previous two decades.
In Wisconsin, the Marquette Law School has been asking similar questions of registered voters for several years. In August 2018, the most recent time it was asked, 18 percent of respondents said they had stopped talking to someone because of political disagreements.
Minde Frederick, a Democrat from Minneapolis, said she tends to avoid certain people not just because it can be uncomfortable, but because “right or wrong, I don’t necessarily want to hear their opinion.” She said politics will come up on Thanksgiving Day though “because my mom and I won’t be able to help ourselves.” Then again, they tend to agree, she added.
Helping people discuss politics constructively has become a bit of a cottage industry. NBC News suggests nine tips for doing so. The New York Times has 10. Most such lists include better listening and less judging; arguing from a position of respect for the other person; and trying to understand rather than convince.
The Better Arguments Project, created by several groups including The Aspen Institute, aims to bridge ideological divides “by teaching Americans how to have better arguments.”
Eric Liu, executive director of the Institute’s Citizenship & American Identity program, lists three steps, and one of them is, surprisingly, to argue more. “We don’t need fewer arguments today; we need less stupid ones,” Liu wrote for The Atlantic.
That means getting past the two-party style of debate and arguing over deeper, foundational aspirations for the country. But the first step to getting there is listening, according to Liu. “I don’t mean ‘debater’s listening,’ in which you pay only enough attention to get the gist of the other person’s point so you can prepare your rebuttal. I mean radically compassionate listening: without judgment, without response,” he wrote.
The second step: “doing stuff together,” such as community or national service to focus on the needs of others rather than on our own differences. “ . . . Whatever it is, if it brings people together across lines of race, class, and politics, it will bring to the fore our common humanity.”
More argument isn’t what many Minnesotans will be looking for as they pass the gravy this week, however. Several said they’ll be serving up political talk only among guests with shared ideology. When company is bipartisan, they tend to dampen debate.
“I appreciate healthy dialogue,” said Annissa Ulbrich, a Democrat from Winona. “This is just kind of getting out of control crazy, and it makes it very hard to have a civil conversation.”
Still, as Ulbrich enjoys her Thanksgiving meal, she is sure politics will come up. Despite voting for Democrats his whole life, her dad supports Trump, she said. Her brother does too, and he is more opinionated. “I always think it is hard to argue or discuss politics with somebody that’s supporting this particular administration,” Ulbrich said. “It’s not technically having a conversation.”
But there are Trump supporters who are also eager to avoid the topic. Curt Kaderlik, a Republican from Owatonna, said he often calls the White House to tell Trump “what a great job he is doing.” But the 78-year-old will try to avoid the topic on Thursday even though it will just be him and his “better half.”
“She is a staunch Democrat,” he said. “We’d get world war three going here … so I don’t dare mention Trump. She hates his guts.”
Dylan Anderson is a student at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. This story and the survey cited were funded in part by an endowment in the name of the late Mitchell Charnley, a professor and expert in news reporting and broadcast journalism who died in 1991.