It’s Thanksgiving, and the Democratic National Committee is declaring war on uncles. “The holiday season is filled with food, traveling, and lively discussions with Republican relatives about politics sometimes laced with statements that are just not true,” the DNC declares on a website called YourRepublicanUncle.com. “Here are the most common myths spouted by your family members who spend too much time listening to Rush Limbaugh and the perfect response to each of them.”
There are 10 “myths,” with accompanying talking points in response—five about Republican presidential candidates, five about political topics. If you’re a Republican uncle and want to stump your DNC-informed niece or nephew, you might want to say something disparaging about Hillary Clinton or bring up national security, as these don’t make the list.
The talking points are unsubtle and tendentious enough that one suspects they were written by the unwieldily named Debbie Wasserman Schultz herself. Example: If your uncle says, “I like that Donald Trump! He says what he means,” you’re supposed to respond:
He certainly does say what he means, and most of the time, it’s xenophobic, or sexist, or out of touch, or totally irresponsible. But what’s really scary is that the rest of the GOP field agrees with him. Because Trump is leading in the polls, the other Republican candidates are competing with each other to see who can echo his message the loudest.
In case that isn’t enough to destroy your uncle, there are a couple of follow-ups.
The DNC idea is far from original: Battle prep for holiday political arguments has been a liberal trope for several years now. Salon’s Alex Pareene, for instance, observedChristmas in 2011 with a piece titled “How to Argue With Right-Wing Relatives” andThanksgiving in 2013 with “How to Win Thanksgiving: A Holiday Guide to Arguing With Right-Wing Relatives.” The latter he billed as “a special ‘Obamacare train wreck’ edition.”
This year, the Puffington Host’s Chris D’Angelo explains “How to Talk to a Climate Change Denier,” while Salon’s Sarah Burris reports: “Wow, Seth Meyers Just Stripped Down Donald Trump’s Lies and Islamophobia So Clearly Even Your Racist Uncle Will Get It Now.”
Vox has a whole package called “How to Survive Your Family’s Thanksgiving Arguments.” Six writers address particular personages (Trump, Bernie Sanders) and issues. In a hilarious attempt at appearing evenhanded, the Voxen include responses to left-wing relatives too, such as this from Zack Beauchamp:
Your uncle says: “This Benghazi thing is pure cynical politics. Republicans are just trying to destroy [Hillary] Clinton’s campaign.”
Your uncle’s got a point, but you can distract from the inevitable argument between him and someone more conservative at the table by pointing out that Republican incentives here aren’t always what they seem.
Yes, some Republicans are cynically manipulating this issue for their own gain or to hurt Clinton—but some do genuinely believe the White House did something right, and some are just kind of trapped by the internal GOP politics of it all.
There’s an asymmetry here. After all, if liberals have annoying right-wing relatives who pick arguments at Thanksgiving dinner, it follows that conservatives also have annoying left-wing relatives who do the same thing. But as far as we know, the “How to Win Thanksgiving” genre is the exclusive province of the left.
Though this year has seen a spate of conservative satires: “How to Talk to Your Progressive Niece about Obamacare This Thanksgiving” by Ricochet’s Jon Gabriel, “Don’t Argue Like an Amateur at Thanksgiving” a series of tweets by Bloomberg’s Megan McCardle, “How to Talk to Your Pansy Marxist Nephew at Thanksgiving” by the Washington Free Beacon’s Uncle Strickland. (We haven’t seen Strickland’s byline before and suspect it’s a nom de plume.) Liberal CNN also has a half-joking piece, “Turkey Table Politics: 7 Tips to Beat the Stuffing Out of Your Rivals,” by the delightfully named Gregory Krieg.
One serious response to all this is to suggest that holiday dinners are an inappropriate venue for the airing of political differences. The Chicago Tribune’s Alison Bowen consults psychologists for advice on “How to Keep Politics Off the Table at Thanksgiving.” The Federalist Sean Davis last year explained “Everything You Need to Know About Winning a Thanksgiving Argument”:
Don’t start one. That’s how you win.
Don’t be that guy. Don’t ruin Thanksgiving by thinking anyone cares about your stupid political opinions.
And Real Clear Politics’ Heather Wilhelm bemoans “The Tightening Grip of the Politicized Life”:
Politics, for many, has morphed into personal identity. Just look at colleges today, where opposing political sentiments or offensive statements can make students collapse like panicked, half-hearted origami. And hey, it makes sense: If politics is the be-all and end-all of life, and you honestly believe we can build a utopia buttressed by bureaucratic control, your personal worth, by logical extension, is ultimately based upon your political beliefs. No offense is too petty to let stand; no Thanksgiving dinner can be left in peace.
This week, let’s give thanks for America’s remaining respites from the politicized life. They may be endangered, but they’re out there—and if we’re smart, we’ll work to expand them. They’re often the best places, after all, to count our many blessings.
There is wisdom here, but we can’t agree entirely. When people gather, it is natural to talk about things that interest them, including current affairs. Such arguments are seldom “won,” but it can be interesting and enlightening to hear points of view different from one’s own. Surely there are ways of avoiding an angry “Crossfire”-style battle short of setting up a safe space where any political discussion is off-limits.
If we were offering advice on how to talk politics at Thanksgiving (or in other ordinary social settings), it would come down to two points: 1. Think for yourself. 2. Be respectful, and prepare to back off or change the subject should things get heated.
The latter point runs counter to the spirit of the left-wing advice, which treats conversation as a contest and futilely aims at victory. The former runs counter to its substance—namely, prepackaged talking points. Liberals have no monopoly on truculence, but the need to be told what to think does seem to set them apart.
The left today is both doctrinaire and capricious; political correctness is unsparing in its demand for conformity to an ever-changing set of dogmas that frequently contradict each other, not to mention reality. A real-life example comes from Politico, whose Edward-Isaac Dovere claims that President Obama is doing a bang-up job combating the Islamic State but is constrained not to say so:
Obama has more he could say in response to the questions about ISIL he’s getting pummeled with since the Paris attacks. They’re just not, according to people familiar with his thinking, things that he wants to say out loud.
Things like, “Remember everyone panicking about how much surveillance we’re doing?” Or “How about all those people I’m killing with drones”? Those wouldn’t have quite the right ring for a president who’s come reluctantly, and with continuing reservations, to both. . . .
The president, according to people who know him, would rather not be Big Brother Obama or Kill List Obama, and he certainly doesn’t want to be seen that way.
That creates a tricky situation for the White House. Obama wants credit for his response to terrorism, but he doesn’t want to be attached to many of the ways he’s managed that response.
“Obama isn’t anxious to be known as the drone president,” said a Democratic strategist familiar with his thinking. “But to anyone who looks at the strikes they’ve taken and the raids that have been authorized, he clearly is fiercely going after these guys.”
It’s difficult to believe—and neither Dovere nor his sources explicitly claim—that Obama has been as effective against ISIS as a president unconstrained by politically correct ideology would have been. But it does seem plausible that his embarrassment over the actions he has taken makes him appear even more ineffectual than he is. If the World’s Greatest Orator can’t forthrightly explain his own policies, no wonder like-minded nieces and nephews who lack his rhetorical gifts are so intimidated by their Republican uncles.