Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t have to dwell on politics

Nation is divided but not supper table

11/22/2018, midnight
We are a divided nation; that is an understatement. What’s more, we increasingly hear...

In one vivid illustration of this phenomenon, a research study of 250,000 tweets during the six weeks leading up to the 2010 U.S. congressional midterm elections found that liberal and conservative populations primarily retweeted only politically similar tweets.

To engage is to not to acquiesce

A study by the Pew Research Center found that “49 percent of Republicans say they’re outright afraid of the Democratic Party, with 55 percent of Democrats saying they fear the GOP.” This part of the cultural divide is self-reinforcing: we fear the other so we don’t engage; we don’t engage so we fear the other even more.

To break this loop, we need to do what columnist Thomas Friedman calls “principled engagement.” While some may choose to sit on the sidelines or hope that one side or the other fails, there is too much at stake. Others may choose to stand resolute in their defiance of engagement, and in doing so, stake the “radical flank” and provide a constructive tension in the debates to come.

But some can choose to build bridges, accepting the mere act of engagement does not mean an acceptance, endorsement or even that we like the other side. It is merely a recognition that we have common concerns and interests. Standing in the middle of warring tribes is not easy as it invites attacks from both sides, but someone has to try by finding common ground.

Where can we start the conversation?

While not all experts agree that we have an income inequality problem, the numbers are sobering and, more importantly, many voters on both the left and right believe what they tell us.

Overall, between 1979 and 2013 the share of income earned by the U.S.’ richest 1 percent increased from 10 percent to 20.1 percent of the total economic pie. Between 2009 and 2013 the top 1 percent of U.S. earners captured 85.1 percent of total income growth. Within the 37-member Organization of Economically Developed Countries, the U.S. trails only Turkey, Mexico and Chile when it comes to inequality.

This is the source of the disgust and disaffection that many American voters feel – a vein that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders tapped into. At its core, it represents a distrust of our political and economic institutions. Some direct their ire at government, some at the corporate sector, and both hold great disdain for the seemingly corrupt relationship between the two.

So, what should you talk about over your holiday dinner? Well to begin, if there is absolutely no hope of common ground, stay away from politics and talk about football.

But if there is an opportunity to build bridges, maybe the topics of common concern to start the conversation include: the need to invest in upgrading our highways, bridges and transportation infrastructure; the corrupting influence of money in politics and possibilities for campaign finance reform; the practice of influence peddling and the proposal for time limitations on when government officials can become lobbyists; programs to increase opportunities for upward mobility like making college education more affordable; or programs to help ease the burden that workers feel when they are displaced by technology, automation, globalization or policy shifts. It may not be easy or pleasant at first, but it’s at least a start. And maybe you’ll be surprised.

One positive outcome of this election is that everyone seems to be engaged (even though a large percentage of Americans didn’t vote). We just need to find the right way to engage. In my religious tradition, it is said, “blessed are the peacemakers.” Whether or not you share my tradition, I think we can agree that we need more peacemakers.

Healing the country won’t come from Washington. It will come from each of us at our family dinner table, local Kiwanis Club, town hall, workplace and sports league. It will come from each of us as we work to open up our own individual bubbles and remember, in the words of the late Leonard Cohen: “Ring the bells that still can ring; Forget your perfect offering; There is a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.”