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How to talk politics on Thanksgiving

A CNN panel discusses tips for navigating conversations on divisive issues with family that may come up on Thanksgiving Day.

Posted: Nov 23, 2018 2:48 PM
Updated: Nov 23, 2018 2:53 PM

It looks like it's going to be a perfect Thanksgiving. The sides are plentiful, and the turkey is juicy.

Then Uncle Seymour brings up politics. Everyone at the table freezes because half the family leans to the left and half leans to the right.

A suave cousin could steer the conversation toward something less controversial, but sometimes you just can't avoid politics.

Here are five thorny issues that could come up on Thanksgiving Day and how you and your family could find common ground:

1. Gun control

Guns are one of the most polarizing issues in our nation. A slight majority (52%) in a recent Pew Research Center poll believed it was more important to control gun ownership than the 44% who said it was more important to protect Americans' rights to own guns. There is a large gender and partisan gap on the issue. It also splits along urban and rural lines.

Far less controversial is preventing people with mental illness from owning guns. In the Pew poll, 89% of Democrats and 89% of Republicans favor this proposal. A Fox News poll, which phrased the question slightly differently, found that 84% of voters (including 89% of Democrats and 80% of Republicans) favor mental health checks for all gun purchases. One of the big changes to Florida law following the Parkland shooting was to beef up mental health checks. This law was passed with bipartisan support and over the objections of the National Rifle Association.

2. Health care

There has probably not been a more important issue in American politics than health care over the last decade. Democrats passed Obamacare, which played a major role in Republicans taking control of the House in the 2010 midterms. Republicans then tried to repeal Obamacare, which, in part, led to Democrats winning back the House majority in 2018. More Americans like than dislike the law at this point, though it's still divisive.

It's best to focus on the parts of Obamacare that tend to have much higher support. Specifically, Americans of all political stripes are for ensuring that those with pre-existing conditions get covered. In August, the Kaiser Family Foundation asked Americans how important it was to maintain the law that "prohibits health insurance companies from denying coverage because of a person's medical history" and "prohibits health insurance companies from charging sick people more." Overall, 75% and 72% respectively said it was very important. Even among Republicans, 58% and 56% said it was very important.

3. The Republican tax cuts

Some thought Republican tax cuts passed by this Congress were going to help them maintain their House majority. It didn't. The law has remained relatively unpopular, and it may have cost Republicans House seats in places where residents were hurt by them.

It's best to steer to conversation toward a tax cut most people support. One reason the Republican tax cut wasn't popular was that most voters thought it was aimed primarily at the upper class. Americans are far more in favor tax cuts in which the middle class would benefit more. During the heat of the tax cut debate last year, 60% of Americans said in a CBS News poll that they would like to see taxes on the middle class decreased. Unlike most other proposals CBS News polled, a tax cut for the middle class received bipartisan support with 69% of Republicans, 57% of independents and 56% of Democrats in favor of one.

4. Immigration

There have been few issues as polarizing as illegal immigration over the last few years. Indeed, when I looked at which issues generated the greatest difference in response from Democrats and Republicans, the yearning to build a wall along the US-Mexico border came in at No. 1. In an October CBS News poll, 76% of Republicans favored building a wall compared to only 9% of Democrats.

Focus instead on legal immigration. Democrats and Republicans do generally agree on this topic: they like it. In a 2018 Gallup poll, 92% of Democrats said legal immigration is a good thing for the country. Among Republicans, 80% said immigration is a good thing for the country. According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who want legal immigration decreased has dropped to 24% (a low since at least 2001). Decreasing legal immigration is a minority position among Democrats (16%) and Republicans (33%).

5. Washington politicians

Bringing up President Donald Trump at a family gathering is like wearing a New York Yankees shirt in Boston. It's bound to set off long stares and start potential fights. Trump is loved by Republicans and despised by Democrats. Mentioning Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is probably not going to end much better.

To bring people together, it's best to keep it broad. Trust in government in Washington remains at just 18%, per the Pew Research Center. That holds with Democrats (15%) and Republicans (22%). Emblematic of that is both Democrats and Republicans hate Congress. Overall, only 21% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. Republican approval stands at just 35%, while just 9% of Democrats give Congress the thumbs-up. With congressional control split starting next year, it's likely that both sides will continue to have something to complain about.

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