Fun and depolarizing political conversation topics for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other holidays

The title of this piece is meant to be a little funny. Talking about politics with people we don’t agree with these days is never fun.

But let’s face it: there’s a good chance you’re going to end up arguing about politics during the holidays (or some other time). Or maybe you think, as I do, that having political conversations can be productive and helpful, if done right. I thought it might be useful to have some ideas for how to steer the conversation away from anger and accusations and into more calm, thoughtful, and less polarizing waters.

A horrible image choice for representing a holiday dinner.

For all the pain and awkwardness political fighting with friends and family can cause us, I do believe there can be real benefits to these conversations. We can come to a better understanding of others’ positions, and see how their beliefs don’t require them being monsters. And sometimes we get to demonstrate to people from the other side how people on our side are reasonable people and not the monsters they’ve imagined. And by understanding our political opponents better, our own arguments become more nuanced and more persuasive.

There are good reasons for attempting to have these conversations (indeed our country’s future may in fact depend on us doing it more) but most of us are pretty bad at it: we get angry, we get emotional, the conversation breaks down, we’re left more angry and divided than we were before.

The conversation topics I’ve assembled below are aimed at getting people from opposite political sides to see how we might have more in common than we think, that the things we think are horrible about and representative of “the other side” are sometimes true of us or other people on our side. The topics are aimed at getting people to see that things are more complex than “people on the other side are all/mostly bad and people on my side are all/mostly good.”

Because the fact is that we do have much more in common than we tend to think, as many surveys and studies have shown. Our divides are much more about our emotional us-versus-them feelings than they are about the issues (although our heightened emotions can of course change our stances on the issues themselves). As Anne Applebaum put it: “America’s left and right are radicalizing each other.”

Some people feel that it’s a betrayal of their political group to acknowledge that some of our political opponents can have understandable reasons for believing what they believe. They believe that acknowledging that the other side can have understandable reasons is akin to giving power to the other side. This couldn’t be further from the truth, and in fact that kind of thinking is a key reason we’re so divided. You can examine why other people believe what they believe and still not agree with it, and still actively work against the things you disagree with. It just means acknowledging that we’re all human; that we’re all influenced by the people and ideas around us.

You might be asking: why should I listen to your ideas about political topics? Long story short: I have a psychology podcast, People Who Read People, where I sometimes discuss us-vs-them political polarization and the psychology behind it. You can see some of that work here. And I’ve done my own research and writing on this topic, like this piece about inherent ways in which social media heightens animosity and bad thinking.

A couple quick notes before you read these:

  • Political beliefs can be complex and hard to pin down, so it’s hard to use simple words to describe people’s politics. For the purposes of this piece, liberal is used to describe people who mostly or always vote for Democrats, and conservative is used to describe people who mostly or always vote for Republicans.
  • Some of my questions will likely anger you, or cause you to think I’m making stupid “both sides” arguments. But if we’re going to attempt bridge-building conversations, it is necessary that both sides are willing to be uncomfortable and consider some ideas they instinctually find distasteful.
  • I wouldn’t attempt such conversations with extremely polarized people. Some people fully believe almost all of the people on “the other side” are monsters who can’t be reasoned with at all. If they believe that, we’re probably best off not trying to converse with them and focusing our conversational efforts on people who are still capable of having conversations (most people still are, in my opinion).

Okay, without further ado, here are some ideas for depolarizing conversation starters/derailers.

About our us-versus-them divides

People in both political groups tend to blame the other group for being more divisive or more hateful. Do you see some people on your political side who make things worse by speaking in bad and divisive us-versus-them ways? What are some examples of that that you dislike? If you are able to see that, does that point to seeing how both sides have played a role in amplifying divides (even if you see one side as worse)?

Do you think internet communication and social media is dividing us, not just politically but at a personal level? Put another way: Do you think that social media has hurt your relationships with friends and family who are politically similar to you? If the answer to that is “yes”: is it possible the internet might be exaggerating our political conflicts and distorting our perceptions of what the other side is like?

Do you think it’s possible our us-versus-them conflicts and our dysfunction might be due to people paying too much attention to politics and becoming obsessed with politics? Do you think it’s possible our country would be better off if more people paid less attention to politics?

When it comes to your anger at people on “the other side,” do you distinguish between the regular citizens and political leaders/influencers? For example: when a regular citizen from the opposite political group behaves badly, does that make you think worse of the other group in the same way as bad behavior from a political leader would? Do you think it’s possible some of our us-versus-them anger stems from us not making that distinction as much as we should? (For example, when we’re insulted by political opponents online, we often get more angry at the other group, even though clearly a lot of people behave badly online, no matter their politics.)

Police violence

When it comes to America’s high rates of excessive, unnecessary force used by cops (in comparison to European countries, for example), what role do you think our country’s huge number of guns play in that? Do you think it’s possible that our huge number of guns and large amount of gun crime may play a role in amplifying police fears and making them more likely to use force?

Do you think if Britain had as many guns and as much gun crime as we do, they’d see much higher rates of excessive police force? Why or why not?

For conservatives: if you don’t see guns as playing a significant role in our high rates of police violence, what do you see as explaining those high rates? Do you think it’s possible that acknowledging the role of guns may be a way to help explain many police over-reactions without requiring malicious motives or reckless behaviors? Is it possible you not wanting to acknowledge the role of guns may be due to a feeling that you’re betraying your side by doing so?

For liberals: do you think it’s strange that the role of guns in police violence seems relatively undiscussed? What do you think might help explain that lack of discussion?

(Maybe of interest: for my podcast, I interviewed a politically liberal police captain about these topics: first part, second part. I also recommend this interactive project by The Guardian that aids in understanding killings by police, and this book by a liberal law professor who became a cop.)

Election legitimacy and January 6th Capitol riot

What percentage of Hillary Clinton voters do you think believed that Trump’s 2016 win was illegitimate? (Answer: about one third, and also 57% of those aged 18–30 believed that.) Why do you think so many people believed that?

If Trump had been declared the 2020 election winner, how many Biden voters do you think would have thought the election was illegitimate? What do you think their reasons to think that would have been?

Some conservatives who believe the 2020 election wasn’t legitimate don’t necessarily believe there’s strong proof of that, but their stance is based more on a major distrust of liberal leaders. (This is something I’ve found talking to several Trump supporters.) Considering that, and leaving aside the behavior of political leaders, is it possible both left and right may have some similarities in terms of a large percentage distrusting the other side regardless of evidence?

Question for conservatives: Let’s imagine that Trump won in 2020 and that Biden repeatedly claimed that Trump stole the election and did so without having strong evidence and also while losing most associated court cases. What do you think conservatives’ reactions would have been to that? Considering that conservatives would likely have been skeptical of those claims by liberals, is it possible to see how many people would be understandably skeptical of conservative claims of election rigging?

Let’s imagine that Trump was declared the winner in 2020. Do you think it’s possible we might have seen far left activists commit destruction or violence in response to that? What form do you think that would have taken? If violence by the far left did happen, do you think it would have been condoned or excused by Democrat leaders? If Democrat leaders did attempt to act like it was not a big deal, do you think Republicans would have been angry about that?

Question for conservatives: Some Trump supporters claim that the January 6th Capitol riot was staged, or that it was planned or started by far left militant antifa-types. But considering that many Trump supporters do believe that the election was stolen, isn’t attempting an overthrow the government an entirely expected and logical response to those beliefs?

Immigration

Did you know that Bernie Sanders has long expressed a belief that we needed stricter immigration laws? Sanders has stated that he believes that large influxes of workers who work for cheap will drive down American wages. He called open-borders-type policies a “Koch brothers proposal” in how it helps the rich. Do you think it would make sense for liberals to argue that Sanders is bigoted or racist for holding such views?

For conservatives: Even if you think that Trump is not a racist or a bigot, can you see how his way of speaking and some of his decisions may be a factor in liberals perceiving him as such? (I think this is a good question because the Trump supporters I’ve talked to will acknowledge that Trump’s behavior has made things worse; coming together on this can be a good entry point for examining how both sides play a role.)

For liberals: There is significant support amongst minorities for Trump (a few examples: ~12% black, ~40% Hispanic, ~33% Muslim American). This would seem to make a strong case that one can be a Trump supporter and not be xenophobic or racist. How much of Trump supporters’ anger do you think might be due to them feeling that they’re being falsely accused of racism?

Racism, critical race theory, and American racial history

When conservatives and liberals argue over the “critical race theory in schools” topic, both sides often have a distorted view of what the other side’s position and intentions are. For example, conservatives often think liberals want to teach that America is evil and corrupt, or that whiteness is bad, but this isn’t what the large majority of liberals want. And liberals often think that conservatives want to remove all discussion of America’s racial and racist history, but that isn’t what the large majority of conservatives want.

Do you think it’s possible we might be more aligned on this topic than we think and we are largely bringing in distorted and fearful views of what the other side wants? When it comes to this topic, what exactly are you afraid of happening if the other side gets its way?

For liberals: is it possible to see what bothers and concerns conservatives (and also liberals) about “whiteness is bad”-type ideas and messaging? Or about accusations of racism and white supremacy being used broadly and loosely to explain so many things, no matter how slim the connection? Does it help to see that point of view if you know that some prominent black and liberal people have criticized some of these ideas? (For example: John McWhorter’s articles and book.)

Question for conservatives: considering that there are some open racists that are enthusiastic about Trump (for example, the Charlottesville, Virginia rally), does that make it easier to understand how many liberals associate Trump support with racism? Can you see that same dynamic in how conservatives tend to equate the unreasonable behavior of far-left people with Democrat leaders?

Question for conservatives: Is it possible to see how conservative objections and anger about the “CRT in schools” topic can be interpreted by liberals as an attempt to remove talking about America’s racial divides and race-related history altogether? Is it possible both sides are seeing their worst fears?

Question for liberals: Do you think it’s possible to have too pessimistic a view of a country’s past, considering that we’re judging it from a more enlightened time, with very different moral standards? Can you see what it is that bothers conservatives about some of the more pessimistic liberal narratives about our country, especially considering the massive social justice progress this country has made?

(For a great examination of how both political groups can have distorted perceptions of the other side’s stance on America’s racial history, see this piece by Matthew Karp.)

Gun control

Currently about 22% of Republicans support more strict gun control. Let’s imagine that we had a large upswing in fundamentalist Islamic terrorism in the United States, and a good amount of that came in the form of mass shootings with guns purchased in the United States. Do you think that would result in more conservatives being supportive of stricter gun control? Why or why not?

Covid and vaccines

Considering there was some skepticism amongst anti-Trump people regarding taking the vaccine when Trump was in office (here are some examples): if Trump had won in 2020, do you think we would have seen a significant number of liberals express skepticism about taking the vaccine?

If Trump had won in 2020 and had promoted the vaccine as safe and effective, do you think we’d see a lot more conservatives be onboard with getting the vaccine and with vaccine requirements?

Abortion

Did you know that up until the 1970s, abortion wasn’t a big political issue and it wasn’t obvious which political party would become more pro-life or more pro-choice. For example: Catholics were the most pro-life religion, and Catholics were primarily Democrat voters. Via private correspondence, abortion issue researcher Dan Williams said that the GOP might have become the more pro-choice party if things had gone a little bit differently: this idea is supported by the fact that “in nearly every other industrialized democracy in the Western world, the leading conservative party in a country is pro-choice on libertarian grounds.” The idea would also seem to be supported by the fact that roughly 3 out of 10 people from each party don’t agree with their party’s stance on abortion.

With the above in mind, is it possible to imagine what a pro-choice GOP or a pro-life-friendly Democrat party would look like? If things had gone differently in that way, can you imagine other ways our political party stances might have changed over time? (for example, the GOP being less clearly the religious-associated party; or Democrats being much less pro-choice than they are.)

(If you’re interested in how some political party stances may be due to randomness and initial conditions, check out this interview with researcher Michael Macy.)

Socialism versus small government

The United States has a lot of programs that are technically “socialist,” like social security, public education, and unemployment insurance. Even the military could be viewed as a socialist program in that it’s a program paid for by everyone’s taxes. On a scale of 1–10, where do you place the United States on the socialism scale? Where would you like that number to be?

In surveys, many people from both the right and the left can express simultaneous beliefs that a) big, bloated governments are bad and unwanted, and b) the government should provide some valuable services to us (even if we disagree what some of those services should be). This slightly conflicting set of core political beliefs that many of us have helps explain how Democrat and Republican party messaging is able to resonate with so many people, and how each party has been capable of adjusting their messaging on these topics slightly to win a few more people from the other side. (These ideas are discussed in the book Asymmetric Politics. Can you relate to having both of those beliefs? For liberals: can you imagine a big, inefficient government with high taxes that bothers you? For conservatives: would it bother you to live in a country with little to no environmental regulations, which resulted in pollution as bad as China’s?

If you enjoyed this

If you liked this piece, please check out my psychology podcast and my piece on the ways in which social media may be dividing us.

Good luck with your political conversations.

Have psych podcast “People Who Read People.” My research into online deception featured in NYT, WaPo, more. Wrote books on poker tells (translated 8 languages).