5 tips to bridge family political divide this holiday season


Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Maddie Loverich, Sports Editor

I’ll start with the most cliche statement of the year: 2020 sucks. But, you know that. 

The upcoming presidential election is contributing to the mass anxiety the public is feeling, mainly due to the incredibly deep (and continually deepening) partisan divides in our country. 

But for some, that divide exists even between your nearest and dearest. Family political debates are a dangerous game that, unfortunately, people often have to navigate. 

“We are all, even members of the same family, the product of a different lived experience,” Linfield political science professor Patrick Cottrell. “Learn to listen well and with an open mind.”

Now, imagine it’s Christmas. Dinner is in the oven and sometimes, in a lull, “no politics” is unavoidable and you must be prepared. 

Navigating politics is difficult enough in a normal year, but civil conversations seem to be a thing of the past. To mend the wounds in our current partisan climate, things have to change from top to bottom. 

The answer, according to Linfield political science professors Patrick Cottrell and Dawn Nowacki, is to begin at the lowest rung of the ladder by creating a civil political conversation within our families. Setting ground rules, asking genuine questions, and avoiding strong reactions are just a few of the ways to create a respectful, productive political conversation.  

   1. Don’t shy away from the tough conversations

Professor of political science Patrick Cottrell emphasizes the necessity of discussing politics. Political issues have a large effect on what happens to groups of people and discussing it can help generate useful conversation and change. 

“Part of what ails society is an unwillingness to engage people with different beliefs in respectful dialogue,” Cottrell said. Refusing to hear, engage with, or listen to those with a different opinion only continues to deepen partisan divides. By engaging in these tough conversations, Cottrell believes it becomes easier to come together and solve issues that affect everyone. 

    2. Set ground rules 

Political science professor Dawn Nowacki notes that she lays down ground rules to help keep conversation civil in her classroom. Outside the classroom, she says that students need to be brave enough to set those rules beforehand. “If people don’t agree on the ground rules, it’s hard to have a civil conversation under those circumstances,” she said. 

Some of the rules she suggests are avoiding ranting or raving, take turns speaking, avoid personal attacks, and abstain from name calling. “It requires what I think of as mature adult conversation,” Nowacki said. “That means keeping your voice down and trying to stay reasonable. You can get passionate and still be reasonable.”  

    3. Remember our humanity 

Above all, we are all human. Nowacki recommends trying to find a point of commonality, by saying “Is there something we can agree on?” She asked her students that question in class recently, and they all agreed that the United States represents freedom and opportunity. By finding this common ground, she believes you can productively build off and debate further. 

     4. Be willing to engage

In order for a productive, two-sided conversation to occur, both sides need to be ready to fully engage in debate. This means that you have to be willing to genuinely talk about the topic, as opposed to throwing opinions at each other without making any clarifications or asking questions. “If they are only interested in hearing themselves speak while pushing their own point of view, you’re not going to have a good conversation,” Nowacki said. 

Nowacki and Cottrell both recommend asking deep, thoughtful questions that genuinely further the conversation. Some of the questions they propose include:

  •     How do you know that? 
  •     What source did you get that from?
  •     How do you know you can trust that source?
  •     What do you and your supporters need to learn about the other side in order to understand them better?
  •     What do you think the other side wants?
  •     How has this conflict affected your life?

    5. Educate yourself

One of the biggest issues in politics today is the partisanship of media and “junk news”. Junk news is a term that media analysts use for misleading and incorrect news, as opposed to using the term “fake news”. “Fake news” has become politically motivated, as the current president uses the term for news that is either critical or against his beliefs. Asking questions and debunking junk information being used in an argument can help stop the spread of misunderstanding and disinformation.

“It’s important that you look at various sources of information. Sources outside of the United States, like the BBC, where the standard of objectivity can be a little higher,” said Nowacki. 

Cottrell adds that you should look at trusted bipartisan sources, such as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, and local news sources, such as OPB. “Educate yourself,” he said.