Civility & Thanksgiving Part 1: Why you should leave politics off the menu
Talisse is a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University.
An internet search for "surviving Thanksgiving politics" returns more than 10 million results. The major news venues have run autumn columns on navigating political debate over Thanksgiving dinner for several years running. The advice offered is sensible: Remain calm, listen respectfully, seek common ground and so on.
But many of the most recent columns offer an additional tip. Noting that Donald Trump's presidency might have made Thanksgiving civility impossible, they suggest skipping the holiday altogether.
Something strange is afoot when America turns to journalists for advice in surviving a holiday devoted nearly entirely to eating good food. Politics has rendered Thanksgiving something to be dreaded. Given the purpose of the holiday, this is tragic. Can anything be done to save Thanksgiving from our partisan divisions?
One strategy is to adopt the adage instructing us to avoid discussing politics over dinner. This rule is rooted in the observation that differences of political opinion quickly escalate into hostility. Better, then, that they be suppressed.
There is much to recommend this policy. Yet not everyone holds to the view that politeness outranks the business of democratic citizenship. Some relatives might feel strongly that democracy is a full-time endeavor and so the struggle for decent politics must override traditional manners. According to them, however valuable a congenial holiday might be, justice is a far more important goal.
If instituted strictly for the sake of ensuring peace, the "no politics over dinner" policy compels only those who see peace as especially valuable. When Thanksgiving also involves relatives who regard politics as more important than familial harmony, the policy amounts to unilateral disarmament. That typically means that your drunk uncle gets to hold forth unopposed. One might just as well cancel.
Thus, whatever its merits may be, the "no politics over dinner" policy requires backup from considerations weightier than the desirability of a placid holiday feast.
Such considerations are found in the ideal of democracy itself. Democracy is many things, but it is centrally the ideal of self-government among political equals. The key to the democratic ideal is that citizens are empowered to hold their government and their fellow citizens accountable. This supplies an explanation of why political disputes escalate so frequently: There will always be disagreements among equal citizens. When interacting in the role of citizen, no one is another's subordinate or supervisor. Consequently, no one gets to declare for oneself the last word.
However, we do not live together solely as citizens. We are also one another's spouses, siblings, parents, friends, neighbors and co-workers. These nonpolitical relationships carry their own responsibilities and expectations. What is more, they are not always equal. In particular, families, workplaces and congregations are notorious for being hierarchically organized. When these hierarchies are nonetheless consistent with participants' status as equal citizens, they are generally unobjectionable.
Therein lies the rub. Under certain circumstances the dynamics governing our nonpolitical relationships obstruct our ability to interact as equal citizens. More specifically, there are settings where the relationships among family members preclude the kind of engagement in which all participants have equal standing. In that case the kind of discussion that is appropriate among democratic citizens cannot be enacted.
Hence the "no politics over dinner" policy finds a democratic rationale. Gatherings of extended family invoke complex relations, some of which involve forms of dependency and deference that run counter to our standing as equal citizens. When political debate is initiated under such conditions, it fails to be properly democratic because it fails to be debate among political equals. Put otherwise, in a democracy, political discussion should be engaged in spaces where participants can interact as equals. But Thanksgiving is a setting for interacting in our roles as relatives. The dynamics associated with familial relations frequently overcome the norms appropriate for individuals interacting as citizens. Consequently, even if we regard the pursuit of a more perfect democracy as imperative, we nonetheless should avoid political debate over Thanksgiving dinner. This is not simply for the sake of politeness, but also because Thanksgiving dinner is not a setting for properly democratic debate to begin with.
My new book, "Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in its Place," argues it is crucial — even as we ardently strive for a more perfect democracy — for us not to lose sight of the proper place of politics in our lives. To put the point crudely, when all of our social interactions are organized around political allegiances, we erode the capacities we need to perform well as democratic citizens. It might sound paradoxical, but if we want to improve democracy, we sometimes need to attend to other things. Overdoing democracy is democracy's undoing.
I mention this because none of the columns devoted to surviving Thanksgiving politics that I've seen makes the suggestion that political debate should be avoided because the dinner serves a social purpose more important than the travails of contemporary politics. This is notable because, after all, the whole point of democracy is to enable us to live lives devoted to things other than politics. Indeed, the promise of lives dedicated to projects other than democracy itself is what makes democracy so precious. Thanksgiving provides a setting in which we can do more than struggle to suppress our political differences. We can rise above them.
In a partisan vote on an issue that once was bipartisan, House Democrats pushed through legislation Friday that would restore a key portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act passed the House 228-187, with all Democrats voting for the bill and all but one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting against it.
The bill faces virtually no chance of being considered in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Broadcasters are pushing back against the Federal Communications Commission after the agency made clear it wants broader public disclosure regarding TV political ads.
With the 2020 election less than a year away and political TV ads running more frequently, the FCC issued a lengthy order to clear up any ambiguities licensees of TV stations had regarding their responsibility to record information about ad content and sponsorship. In response, a dozen broadcasting stations sent a petition to the agency, asking it to consider a more narrow interpretation of the law.
This dispute over disclosure rules for TV ads comes at a time when digital ads are subject to little regulation. Efforts to apply the same rules for TV, radio and print advertising across the internet have been stymied by Congress's partisanship and the Federal Election Commission being effectively out of commission.
Laura Williamson says her career was shaped by growing up in North Carolina, which she describes as being historically at the center of the best and worst of American democracy. She spent seven years working with young people at progressive groups and got a master's in public affairs at Princeton before joining Demos in the summer of 2018. The think tank aims to combat "threats to democracy, racial equity and economic inclusion" and as a senior policy analyst she's focused on voter registration, voting rights, money in politics and civic participation. Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's democracy's biggest challenge, in 10 words or less?
Abolishing all disenfranchisement schemes and achieving an inclusive, multiracial democracy.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
Testifying at the North Carolina General Assembly against cuts to funding for vocational education. The woodworking classes I took throughout high school were among the most formative of my public school education, so as a high school senior I advocated for their continued funding to lawmakers in Raleigh.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
It's actually a triumph-in-progress. At Demos, we are privileged to work with powerful grassroots leaders redefining democracy and pushing the reform conversation across the country. Alongside these Inclusive Democracy Project leaders we are dreaming and scheming about what it would take to build a truly inclusive democracy — without limiting ourselves by what's perceived as politically feasible or reasonable — and to chart a radical reform agenda that meets the challenge. Our agenda is in progress and, like all real victories, is benefitting from the efforts of many smart and talented people. Stay tuned, it'll be ready for public consumption soon!
And your most disappointing setback?
They have always come after I've not listened well enough, have brought too much ego and taken things too personally, or not followed my gut about when a process or decision felt off.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm from North Carolina, where we pioneered multiracial, pro-justice fusion politics during Reconstruction, civil disobedience during the civil rights movement and franchise-expanding voting reforms since the 1990s. More recently, we have also been home to the vanguard of voter suppression and other democracy stifling tactics since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. I stand on the shoulders of giants and against the abdication of our identity as democracy leaders. I also do this work because, as a white woman, I know the exclusion of entire communities from our democracy was — and is still — led by my people and, often, in my name. I work every day to undo that legacy and ongoing reality.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Learn to simultaneously practice patience and show up with urgency in all the work I do.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Impeaches and Cream
West Wing or Veep?
West Wing — for the sometimes-too-earnest belief that government can be a force for good, not the centrist politics!
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Turn on do not disturb.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I'm deeply terrified by karaoke.
Lightman is a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University.
With the 2020 election less than a year away, Facebook is under fire from presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.
Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.
Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.
I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.
Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it's important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the Federal Communications Commission, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.