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A Thanksgiving Myth Debunked: People Aren’t Fighting About Politics

Dr. Klar said that her research has indicated that this trend is driven in part by the fact that, since the feminist movement’s second wave in the mid-20th century, women have grown more directly engaged in politics — and have become more likely to put a priority on finding a husband with whom they agree politically.

The same thing goes for parents and their children. On matters of partisanship and political views — including a measurement that academics call the “racial resentment scale” — young people are far more likely to hold similar views to their parents than they were in the mid-1970s, or even in the 1990s.

As a result, Dr. Tedin said, at the Thanksgiving table, “if there is a disagreement, almost anybody in the nuclear family — mom, dad and the kids — is going to be on one side, and the cousins are going to be on the other side.”

But mostly, they’re likely to tiptoe around one another. “Polarized politics increases avoidance within families,” he said. “You might think polarized politics means they’re going to be fighting at Thanksgiving, but no — it’s the reverse. Polarized politics increases the pressure to avoid conflict at the holiday.”

The inclination to avoid conflict doesn’t necessarily mean that disagreement is inevitable if the conversation does turn to politics. Matthew Levendusky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies political polarization, said that when those kinds of conflicts do come up, they aren’t necessarily likely to become hostile. And whether hard or easy, Dr. Levendusky added, those conversations are fundamental to the functioning of a democracy — especially in a time when social media and cable news often play up each party’s most extreme elements.

In 2016, Dr. Levendusky published a study showing that people tended to vastly overestimate the differences between the two parties. “We asked people where their position was, and where they thought the average Republican and Democratic positions were,” he said. “Basically, they thought the parties were twice as far apart as they are in reality, on a wide variety of issues.”

Now he is at work on a book about how people with differing perspectives might overcome their political animus. Simply talking to one another, he said, is essential to bridging the divide — and it’s often not as painful as people expect it to be. That’s because most Americans are not deeply ideological, so political disagreements are not terribly high-stakes for them. In completing the research for the book, he and his collaborators convened roughly 500 study participants from across the political spectrum, and invited them to talk about politics.

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