An Experimental, User-Friendly Guide to Talking Politics this Holiday Season

Coming from a family that encompasses conspiracy-theorists, Trump-voters, Biden-voters and Bernie-voters―my immediate family, I should add―I’m not afforded the luxury to shut people out of my life whose politics differ from my own. I hope that in writing this, I’m able to help myself figure out how to better communicate with members of my family regarding political concerns and offer some advice along the way.

Disclaimer: This article is not for anyone trying to “win” an argument. It is not for anyone who sees themselves as innately “right” in their political opinions or philosophies. It is also not for anyone who has shut off any willingness to hear people’s thoughts and ideas that are painfully, precisely opposite of yours. Instead, this article will serve best those who have grown tired of leaving a family member’s house in tears at yet another disappointing evening of finding out someone who shares your blood also occupies a completely different headspace. It will be most beneficial to those who refuse to deflate the people who contradict their every political belief and those who continuously question and challenge their own.
I am no expert on the subject matter of political discourse, especially with the added slant of civility. I am competitive and stubborn. Even worse than that, I have a temper. But I refuse to give into these shortcomings and let it dictate my relationship with my family members, who are all as loud and strong-willed as me. Instead, I hope to sort through the many different kinds of conversations I’ve had with my family members to discover what works and what doesn’t.

1. If guided by delusion or misinformation―abort.

The first time I was sent an “article” about the dangers of the COVID-19 vaccine, namely the proven false rumor that it causes female sterilization, I tried using reason in my argument. The article was not a link, but a photo image, which was the first thing that seemed wrong. There were no authors listed under the headline―second thing wrong. There wasn’t even any kind of website or organization attributed to the couple bullet points that comprised the entire “article”― third thing wrong. I tried to point these things out to this member of my family, only to receive a half-hearted shrug in response. I Googled the headline and my browser was swamped with article after article fact-checking and proving this claim wrong. AP News, Business Insider, USA Today, even websites made for fact-checking all debunked this claim.
“They even took it off Facebook for being proven false,” I told them.
“That makes me want to trust it more,” this person laughed at me.
This was one of those nights where my head swelled with the terror and exhaustion of finding out someone I’ve known my entire life is susceptible to misinformation. I had ignored any kind of indication that this person might have given before, unwilling to believe someone educated and respected could spout out these delusions.
I know now that I approached the situation wrong. It was unfair to myself to think I must be responsible for showing them how to take in information (the key: always be skeptical). Instead, I should have disengaged because when someone believes something to be true that is through-and-through not true, then no amount of logic and reason can change their mind. NPR’s Consider This did a segment on the parallel pandemic of misinformation that has become increasingly mainstream alongside the coronavirus pandemic. Though this information is disheartening and enormously scary, it is oddly comforting to understand in these broader terms. My family member isn’t necessarily crazy, but just one example of a wider, societal problem we must face.

2. Find an angle that isn’t as in-your-face.

It’s funny thinking back to the 2016 election, which at the time felt as contentious as it could possibly get (ha, 2020 beat you). Back then, the strategy to unite my family would be to turn on Saturday Night Live. The presidential debates, as depicted by SNL, would roast both parties equally, in a way making everyone happy. Alec Baldwin’s Trump would say something terrible and my sister and I would clench our entire bodies until the sweet relief of laughter poured out of our Trump-voting family member’s body.
This year, we turned more to Nathan Fielder’s Nathan For You (not political, just funny) and Sasha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America? The conjunction of humor and politics is a touchy intersection, but it is far more ideal compared to conversations beginning with video clips taken off Facebook or articles where you can’t remember enough details to adequately explain your point.
All other TV shows, as well as books and movies, are other great points of conversation, and if you want it to circle back to politics, it’s better to talk about the issues in the context of the show, book or movie that you are referencing before talking about its broader implications for our society.

3. Discuss other country’s politics.

Last week, my family was driving on a major street in our home of Kansas City when we realized the traffic was due to a car parade. It took us a few moments to figure out what it was for, initially thinking it was some kind of Trump rally until we saw a sign reading: “Fuck Modi.” It was an Indian Farmers’ Protest, one of many scattered throughout the United States to lend their support to the tens of thousands protesting and striking in India. They were protesting legislation that would essentially deplete any chances Indian farmers have to earn money in agriculture when competing with giant corporations.
My family talked about it briefly, and it was refreshing to discuss something most of us had little knowledge of. Instead of retracting back to our strong opinions, it gave us the opportunity to have an enriching conversation, more focused on learning than making judgements. Eventually, the conversation drifted back to monopolies in America and the legality of them. The common enemy of the family―Jeff Bezos―was picked and prodded before we moved onto Facebook, all the while keeping in mind our own theories of capitalism and whether or not the system can truly fix itself, or if there need to be larger, outside regulations in place. No tears were had, though it did reach a high volume.

4. Find non-politically-flavored common ground.

This week, my semi-conspiracist family member called me, excited about the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction, knowing I would be excited, too. We drove out to an empty parking lot and tried to spot it, pointing at distant flecks near the horizon, all the while my sister shouting: “It’s a Christmas miracle!!!!!!!!!!” as a joke.
I always try to be conscious of what means a lot to other people, and these are usually the topics of conversation that you can safely know won’t turn into a fight. My one family member, for example, is interested in learning Spanish and even studied in Spain before the hell that is COVID-19 broke loose. I heard about this Google Chrome extension for Netflix where you can watch Spanish language movies with English and Spanish subtitles, and showed them.
“That’s literally so stupid,” they said.
“I thought it looked cool,” I said.
Normal sibling conversation accomplished.

5. Invoke the wisdom of Dolly Parton.

Dolly Parton is one of few celebrities who has avoided becoming political. (One of my family member’s even tried to trash the Beatles for being too liberal. The Beatles! Americana!) People who have been to Dolly concerts have commented on the impossibly diverse, alternate reality of our country. People who vote for Trump and are adamant about the second amendment sing the same song as drag queens and queer people. It’s a celebration ground for unity.
I am not a religious person, but Dolly Parton ignites a kind of spiritual glow. In a Christmas song with Kenny Rogers, she sings: “So I say a silent prayer for creatures great and small. Peace on Earth, good will to men is the greatest gift of all.” WNYC tackles this enigma that is Dolly Parton in a nine episode podcast called Dolly Parton’s America. I especially liked the “Dollytics” episode.
Above anything, take care of yourself. Be alone if you need to. Drink water. Eat. Sleep. And take it day by day.