Tips for polite political debates at family dinners

By Dan Dunkle | Nov 23, 2016

With the nation divided following a nasty presidential election, many are concerned that their holiday meal or family get-together is going to be marred by out-of-hand political arguments.

To avoid lasting resentments at your next party or function, we offer a few tips for harmonious political debates among polite company.

1. Start political debate early on social media.

Thanks to breakthroughs in information technology, one no longer has to wait until they see that racist grandparent, vegetarian niece or gun-enthusiast hillbilly cousin to begin the political argument.

The night before your holiday get-together, write a lengthy political manifesto into the status update on your Facebook or Twitter account (or whatever you use as a younger, hipper person).

Make sure to demand everyone who agrees with you post this rant in their status update. It's usually good to create a sense of guilt around this. Something like, "If you support veterans, you will share this post." Check back throughout the night to see who has done this and take extreme offense to those who have not.

Un-friend, un-follow, de-like or delete emoji points from anyone who expresses a political viewpoint you do not agree with.

2. Dress appropriately.

If you are conservative, be sure to wear your red "Make America Great Again" ball cap and a bright red tie.

If you are liberal, bring goodies in your NPR tote bag and park the Prius/Volvo/Subaru where everyone can see the peeling Obama/Biden bumper sticker (or other stickers going back to Mondale/Ferraro depending on your age and that of your car).

3. Identify political opponent quickly.

Dispense with greetings and chit-chat about how various family members are doing quickly and hone in on the one other person in the family as passionate about politics as you are, but who is on the other or "wrong" side.

Swagger up to this person with a smug look on your face and make a comment like, "Well, I guess you're quite happy with the election results," and be sure you are seated near enough this person to discuss matters in more depth over the course of the meal.

4. Opening statements.

Remember that Thanksgiving lasts for many hours and pace yourself accordingly.

First, to gain the upper hand, you're going to want to lull your opponent into a false sense of security. "I've agreed not to talk about politics today." The fact that you've already mentioned the election will be dismissed as an innocent slip-up.

The other person now has the opportunity to agree to the no politics rule, or engage. They may respond with something like: "Well, I can hardly see how you would justify the position of your candidate anyway considering he/she is a (war criminal/email deleter/sex offender/tax dodger/religious apostate) anyway."

If the other person starts something, you have won the first round. If they do not and you have to instigate the next phase, remember your absolute rightness makes it impossible for your arguments to go unsaid.

5. Reasonable arguments.

Once the debate has begun, sort through your tool bag of half-read Atlantic articles and Fox News talking points for safe topics, picking those that you are especially passionate about. Don't be overly concerned with your grasp of the finer details of the issues in question. The facts tend to sort themselves out in these debates.

Safe topics include:

- Benghazi

- Immigration reform

- Supreme Court appointments

- Private email servers

- The War on Christmas

- Religion and God's general agreement with your political viewpoint.

- U.S. trade policies (Say anything you want about these. No one knows any actual facts).

- Gun rights (Fun statements include: "Bad guys don't obey laws," or "Our forefathers, when they were overthrowing the government, didn't want us to have weapons with which to overthrow the government.")

- Drug legalization ("These laws are needed to stop bad guys from selling drugs, because now bad guys obey laws," or "Look how big my spoon is, man!")

6. Slowly ratchet up intensity.

Obviously during the heat of the eating, you will need to keep the argument at a pace that can be carried on between bites. However, the post-bird pre-pie lull gives you an opportunity to begin the next phase.

First, speak faster and lengthen the statements. Rapid fire your talking points in dense wordy paragraphs that leave your opponent no opportunity to get a word in edgewise. It's good here to say things like, "Well, you admit the Iran deal was a travesty, right? Admit it! Admit it was the worst thing since the Iran Contra scandal/Cuban Missile Crisis/McCarthy witch hunt!"

But don't actually pause for the person to respond to these questions. These are rhetorical questions, the only correct answer being obvious.

7. Go nuclear.

From here you can slide easily into screaming directly into your loved one's face as he/she screams back, spittle flying, ears reddening, neck flesh going from red to alarming purple.

You're going to want to bring up something that the other person did wrong 15 to 20 years ago that has nothing to do with the argument at hand. Any level of personal attack is now on the table.

Be sure to note carefully the personal attacks leveled at you so you can harbor a lengthy resentment. Remember, this may not be the last holiday you will spend with this loved one, and you will need something to fight about in the years to come.

Nothing else matters. Whoever wins this argument at a dinner table in Midcoast Maine will determine the future of our entire nation!

8. Intervention.

Now you and your opponent will be forced to sit meekly while whoever invited you and actually got up at 5 a.m. to put a turkey in the oven scolds you for ruining yet another holiday event.

9. Awkward silence.

10. Pie.

11. Contrition.

After a few drinks, call opponent around 10 p.m. after everyone has gone home, and apologize for everything.

"I still love you even though you went to college and got liberal."

"And I still love you even though your vote helped turn our country into 1930s Germany."

Return to social media to write a partially incomprehensible philosophical epiphany that your friends will scroll past to take a survey on which "Game of Thrones" character they most resemble.

Those are our tips. Feel free to post comments below on how they work out for you.

Daniel Dunkle is news director for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, two children and two cats. Email him at

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