4 min read

Don’t Bother Arguing with Your Conservative Relatives

This Thanksgiving, invest time into mobilizing your like-minded family members instead This Thanksgiving, invest time into mobilizing your like-minded family members instead
Don’t Bother Arguing with Your Conservative Relatives

Don’t Bother Arguing With Your Conservative Relatives

This Thanksgiving, invest time into mobilizing your like-minded family members instead

Photo: A.Y. Owen/Getty Images

Each year, Beltway nerds like me write extremely earnest essays about how to talk to your relatives who disagree with you about politics over Thanksgiving. In fact, I’ve written guides like this for climate change. But our political and media environment has changed a lot over the past several years, so my advice has changed, too.

Don’t waste time trying to convert your conservative Uncle Bill

Let’s be real: You’re probably not going to change Uncle Bill’s mind. Even if you can get him to see your point in the moment, he’s going back to Fox News and his conservative Facebook groups. Even if you change his mind about an issue, there’s probably not much that he’s going to do about it. Is he politically active enough to donate, knock doors, and lobby his legislators? Probably not. Let him enjoy his turkey in peace and just shrug if he tries to start a political argument. Unless, of course, he’s being super bigoted. (See more on that below.)

Meanwhile, you might have liberal relatives who agree with you on politics but don’t know what else they can do to have an impact. Or you might have younger relatives who are just starting to engage politically. Fully three-fourths of American adults didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016 — so let’s focus on people like them instead. Here are a few ways to help:

  • Millions of young people will be voting for the first time in 2020. They can register and preregister now. Talk to your younger relatives about their voter registration status, check their records with them online, and get them registered. Bonus: If any of your relatives have moved recently, they probably need to reregister.
  • Recommend good books about politics. Candidate biographies are a good bet for family members who may have a candidate they’re interested in supporting. A personal favorite is Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone by Astra Taylor. It is the most interesting book about democracy I read in 2019.
  • Ask people what issues they care about, and get them a gift membership with a relevant organization. For example, 350.org is great on climate. Big progressive groups like MoveOn.org work on tons of issues. And Swing Left and Indivisible are helping people organize locally to win elections and push legislators on key issues.

Most importantly, frame these suggestions to family members in a way that is social and actionable. When you find out someone is interested in politics, offer to do something together or at least follow up. Tell them, “I’ll check in next month and make sure you’re registered!” Or, “Let me send you a copy of the book. It’ll be an early Christmas present!” Or say, “I really enjoyed texting voters with Indivisible. It made me feel like I was having an impact. Maybe we can do it together this year.”

That’s obviously not the normal advice we get this time of year, so it might leave you with some questions. Here are some answers to questions I’ve gotten in response to this approach.

What about that bigoted second cousin who always says something terrible to provoke people?

Always stand up against bigotry. It’s important for other people in the room to hear that, too. But don’t get sucked into a conversation that isn’t focused on other people’s human rights. Too many political talking points are designed to distract from rather than focus on these conversations: They are bad-faith. Just state in clear terms that no one’s humanity should be up for debate. (For more on this topic, here’s a good Twitter thread detailing the importance of calling out bigoted family members.)

But don’t we need to reach across the divide?

Sure, if you want. But you’re not a member of Congress hammering out a budget deal. It’s just Thanksgiving! So I’m suggesting the above is a better use of one’s time. Also, you might have noticed that liberals are the only people who write these guides. Conservatives don’t sit around thinking about how they’re going to persuade you.

But don’t liberals need to win over conservatives to change the system?

No, they just need to win over people generally. This isn’t cable news—it’s democracy. The vote from your niece who’s casting a ballot for the first time counts just as much as Uncle Bill’s. Getting more people involved who agree with you is a way better use of your time, especially since there are so many people on the sidelines and so many people who are new to politics.

But shouldn’t we be open-minded?

Yeah, absolutely, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend time having a political argument that may or may not be useful to anyone involved. We have more access to other people’s political perspectives than ever before, but that doesn’t mean we need to spend time dwelling on opposing ideological differences at Thanksgiving.

What if my other relatives start arguing?

If you have a toxic relative or relatives who simply don’t argue kindly with one another, you can try to refocus the conversation or deescalate. “Yeah, I understand that’s what you think. I disagree, but it’s not something I’m interested in discussing at Thanksgiving.”

And if all that fails, raise your glass, give them a cheerful “Okay, Boomer!” and focus on the other people whose minds — and actions — you can actually change.

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