Must We Survive Thanksgiving?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Thanksgiving is nearly upon us, a time when family gathers to reflect together on the year that is nearly completed. Thanksgiving is the least commercialized of the national holidays in the US. It is also the most humane and civilized.

Celebrating-thanksgiving-fight-family-funny-ecard-5sKDespite its pensive ambitions, however, Thanksgiving is a notorious site of familial angst. Consequently, early in November newspapers, magazines, websites, and television programs begin offering advice on "surviving" Thanksgiving. The genre focuses largely on strategies for managing political disagreement over the dinner table. This trend hit a high mark last year, in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. Writing for Food section of The Washington Post, Maura Judkis composed a guide for "Surviving Thanksgiving when you hate how your family voted," which concludes by asking whether respectful and illuminating conversation about politics over Thanksgiving dinner among politically opposed family members is even possible. "Do such families exist?," Judkis asked. In The Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein consulted experts on empathy in offering her "Thanksgiving Day family peace plan," which includes advice on how to "see each family member as a well-rounded being" and to remain kind and calm. In Fortune, the etiquette expert Daniel Post Senning proposed five strategies for avoiding politics at Thanksgiivng dinner, which included the recommendation to "prepare yourself mentally" and "don't get drawn in." Matt Miller and Sammy Nickalls posted at Esquire a piece on "How to Talk Politics over the Holidays Without Being a Dick" that acknowledges that "we can't avoid" talking politics over the holidays, and so we must devise ways to prevent them from "turning into screaming matches." And CBS News ran a piece by Mary Brophy Marcus about how to "avoid a family blowup"; Marcus advised family members to "set ground rules," to "limit time with difficult people," and if necessary to "stay home."

A new succession of posts and columns is soon to appear. These will offer sensible advice about how to conduct oneself in political discussion on Thanksgiving. Of course we should strive to remain calm, respectful, and attentive in a political debate among family. Surely we should avoid shouting matches, and we most certainly need to listen to one another. Remaining civil in a heated political debate is no easy achievement, and rarely do we find ourselves dining with those to whom we are politically opposed. So perhaps an early-November reminder to start mentally preparing is necessary.

But wait a minute. Isn't it odd that we should need for the advice of strangers for dealing with family members? And isn't the oddness punctuated by the fact they we're seeking advice for managing a dinner whose purpose is to bring family together?

So here's an alternate suggestion for Thanksgiving. Rather than honing one's de-escalation skills, instead affirm that political discussion is to be avoided, not because conflict is unpleasant and agreement is unlikely, but rather because family gatherings are more important than politics. Explicitly proclaim to your loved ones that the purpose of Thanksgiving is to reflect with gratitude on the preceding year in ways that enable otherwise dispersed family members to renew their familial relations. Like the current mileage on your car or the color of the interior of your local bank, the political condition of the nation is beside the point of Thanksgiving. Politics simply doesn't matter.

This may seem an outlandish thought. In a democracy, citizens collectively engage in the project of self-government among equals. This project is never completed, so the work of democratic citizenship is ongoing. It is common to draw from this the additional thought that citizens must perpetually be enacting their civic duties, focused at every instant on the project of self-government. As several of the towering 20th Century figures in American democratic theory agreed, the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy. Hence if democracy is imperfect, we must do more of it. Thus we are accustomed to thinking that in a democracy there is nothing more important than politics, and holiday dinners among family are perfectly suitable setting for political debate.

But this string of ideas is flawed. Indeed, democracy is a great good, a necessary condition for political decency, not to mention legitimacy and justice. It is the system by which equals govern themselves, and self-government involves a great deal of discussion and debate across a broad range of settings. However, the ideal of ongoing self-government among equals does not entail that citizens must perpetually enact their civic role. Although self-government is unending, democracy cannot require citizens to fixate perpetually on politics. In fact, the ideal of democracy must involve a conception of a social good that is greater than itself, because democracy is meant to serve and secure a good. To be specific, democracy is a political and civic form that aims to secure and manifest stable and just relations among equals. What matters for democracy, then, is maintaining a reasonably just social order within which we can relate to each other as equals.

The assertion that there are some things more important than democratic politics is an explicit recognition that we are not defined by our political allegiances. Equals must regard each other as people with interests, projects, and ambitions that transcend the politics of the day, and we need to recognize and respect the import of those non-political projects. Our neighbors are not simply liberal or conservative voters; their lives are not consumed by their political profile. They are devoted to projects beyond politics, things like parenting, gardening, cycling, cooking, performing music, reading, hiking, volunteering, knitting, and traveling. In order to treat each other as political equals, we must see each other as something more than citizens.

To say that politics is simply beside the point of Thanksgiving is to affirm that family members are connected precisely by those shared bonds, aspirations, and values that go beyond the travails of partisan politics; it is the explicit acknowledgement of the broader goods that democratic politics is meant to serve. An overt prohibition of political disputation over Thanksgiving dinner thus does not reflect an anti-democratic sentiment. It rather asserts that in a society of equals, democratic politics must be kept in its place so that the non-political goods that democracy secures can flourish.

Keeping politics in its place is not easy. Indeed, the very call to do so is liable to being received as a political act, yet another move in the unending clash of partisan politics. Consider that at a recent speech in Virginia, President Obama lamented that "instead of our politics reflecting our values, we've got politics infecting our communities." The crowd's response — an enthusiastic chant of Obama's 2008 election slogan ("Yes, We Can!") — undermined the poignancy of the remark. Obama had called attention to the fact that we are failing to put politics in its place, and the crowd swiftly confirmed his diagnosis by transforming that very observation into yet another site for the infiltration of politics. It may be safely concluded that at the level of our national political dialogue, there is no coherent way to make the case for putting politics in its place. This gives all the more reason to insist upon it in more intimate settings such as holiday gatherings. With politics put in its place, we need no longer regard Thanksgiving as something to be survived, but can see it as something once again to be thankful for.