A Game Plan for Thanksgiving Dinner Conversation about Government

by Elaine Mejia on November 26, 2013 in Feature

holiday conversations about governmentTurkey, dressing, and cranberry sauce are, unfortunately, often served during Thanksgiving dinner with a heaping side dish of heated, unpleasant conversation about government and politics. This Thursday, families and friends across America will go to great expense of time and money to gather together geographically and gastronomically—only to then be swiftly driven apart by divisive dialogue.

So to help turn these conversations into opportunities to improve public understanding of the role of government (and to prevent our readers’ families from being unduly damaged by disagreements), here are some tips for making holiday conversations about government more civil and perhaps even productive.

We drew upon another cherished American Thanksgiving tradition – football – to organize this Public Works’ game plan for Thursday.

Tips for Holiday Conversations about Government

  1. Offensive and Defensive Lines – Your big, strong values. A football team is only as good as its offensive and defensive lines, and the best ones are made up of values. Values are deeply held beliefs such as security, opportunity, freedom, etc. (They are not statistics, policy proposals or program names.) If your tablemates want to throw out loaded terms like “socialism” or “gun rights” or “waste, fraud, and abuse,” your best bet for getting the conversation back on track is to pivot to core American values by saying something like, “That term is pretty vague, but I think we can all agree that a family shouldn’t have to go bankrupt to provide care for a sick child. Let’s find the most effective ways to do that.”
  2. The Quarterback – It’s all about delivery. As the deliverer of the message, be mindful of your tone. Sure it might be fun to throw out a few zingers to poke holes in their secondary arguments, but communications research shows this won’t improve their understanding, much less persuade them to support your ideas. In addition to maintaining a practical tone, you might also consider “working your short game.” There’s some interesting new research that suggests people often reject strong arguments because acquiescing to them would make them question themselves and their beliefs and choices at a level that they aren’t emotionally prepared to handle. So lead with arguments that have merit but where positions are less staked out in the public mind, with the hope of generating responses like, “I hadn’t thought of it that way” or “I hadn’t heard that argument before.”
  3. Get them to use their bench – Bring out their inner citizen-manager. Most people default to thinking that their role with respect to government is limited to voter, check-writer or consumer. It’s important to get them to see themselves as a citizen-manager. When your relatives complain about how bad it all is, remind them that we all have a responsibility to participate and to get down the field together. If there is something we don’t like, we can and should help figure out the answer. For example, a statement like this helps people to go from complainer to problem-solver: “Obviously you don’t think the Affordable Care Act is working effectively in its current form. So what will work to help all Americans have access to quality affordable health care?”
  4. Running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends – Deploy the actual work of government. People tend to lump all of government into one nebulous blob and then make blanket statements about waste and size. When you dig beneath the surface, however, most Americans don’t want to see less of what government actually does (i.e. Social Security, public education, fire-fighting, etc.). They want to continue “moving the chains” when it comes to quality of life and community well-being. And when the actual work of government is the focus, the conversation is much more productive. In this case, keeping our “eye on the ball” means responding to blanket statements about bureaucrats with things like, “By ‘bureaucrats’ do you mean teachers, firefighters, and social workers? I think they play important roles in our community.”
  5. The Red Zone – The conversation IS the goal. With most in-laws, scoring the proverbial “touchdown” in one conversation may not be possible, so think of the Red Zone as your goal. In other words, the goal is to be in a productive conversation by the end of the meal. It might also be helpful to think of everyone around the table as the audience, not just the loudmouth who’s sticking to his or her roughest talking points. While that person may not be ready to engage in a meaningful dialogue about the role of government in society, chances are the person’s significant other or children are listening and might be influenced by your contributions.
  6. Special Teams – Time to punt. At some point, it may be time to break out the hard cider, regroup and plan for the next encounter. After all, chances are good that you’ll get another crack at the same opponent in a month.


Happy Thanksgiving! Let us know how it goes. After all, we’re still working on our in-laws (a.k.a. our outlaws) as well.