Thanksgiving may be in the rearview mirror, but come January, President-elect Donald Trump will become President Trump—and between now and then, there’s plenty of time for another round of holiday season shouting matches over drinks and casserole.
If you’re surrounded by ideologically compatible friends and family, you're fine. But as culturally assortative as our relationships are today, chances are your situation is a little more complex. Whether you’ve been hitting the egg nog a bit too hard or you’re just trying to be sociable, it’s as easy as being trapped beneath mistletoe to wind up knee deep in a controversy about our political present and future.
Believe it or not, there’s an answer, and it’s not the latest self-help guru or sensitivity training manual. And no, you don’t even need to retreat into vacuous conversation about food or trot out your personal theory about Westworld. In my studies of political theory, I have found solace in the insights of a mid-nineteenth-century thinker from France, Alexis de Tocqueville, who cruised around the United States and made a bunch of amazingly dead-on realizations about being American.
Tocqueville left us Democracy in America, a manual for these very issues. Some of his ideas distilled can make for a helpful holiday guide for how to talk your way successfully to peace on earth—or at least around the dinner table.
Remember: We’re only human.
It sounds obvious, but it’s still more important than we think. Tocqueville foresaw two contrasting but intersecting fears we harbor about our friends and family. First, we’re nervous that we’re stuck with their raw feelings because so many outlets for broader community seem to be fading away. Increasingly, we all feel more interchangeable and insignificant than we want, and it’s scarily easy to project our unfiltered anxieties, and our desire to look impressive, on those who are most like a captive audience.
Set some ground rules.
Sometimes taking part in a preset political belief system makes us feel more right than it seems we could ever be on our own. And then suddenly, we’re throwing yams at grandpa. Some things, like pride-fueled human antagonism, never change; American life primes us to make popular battles personal, even when we know it’ll probably go wrong.
We are, however, all adults here, so consider taking a minute before everyone dives in to casually lay down a few ground rules, using a tone similar to the one you use to establish that the dining room is a no-cell-phone zone. People can, and should, say when it’s time to tap out of a conversation. If anyone has a request to leave some chunk of current events out of the table talk, they should speak up and be honored. Tocqueville noted the importance of clear boundaries to ranging freely and comfortably in open space. Try it, and you’ll agree.
How you are matters more than who.
Tocqueville isn’t the only philosophical genius in history to transmit this message, but he’s probably the most relevant to our own predicaments. And today, when a ton of political disagreement is centered around questions of identity, we often see arguments over our rights to define ourselves and expect others to accept and celebrate that. Even though these questions are probably impossible to throw out of human life, haggling over them can be an exhausting exercise with no clear foundation. Identity isn’t meaningless or irrelevant, but it is secondary to how we choose to act toward those around us. If you and those you’re with jump into political questions with that kind of conceptual life jacket on, you’ll all stand a better chance of staying afloat, even in choppy waters, without clawing one another's faces off.
Politics is itself a middle ground.
There’s so much blather today around the need for kinder, gentler, less partisan politics—but so little to show for it. That’s because politics is a different kind of middle ground. It’s not one where we all ought to agree on the most bland and inoffensive policies of togetherness, it’s one where we can handle the give and take of contesting important matters—that is, if we agree on two key principles that Tocqueville identifies. First, not everything in life is a matter of justice. Second, not everything in politics is really a moral question. If you’re in a conversation with someone who thinks all things are political, or nothing is, you’re probably on the fast track toward having your eyebrows singed off.
Make like Socrates.
Since there’s no block button next to the mulled wine, the game plan for tempering emotions is to build conversation around a small, but not too small, group. Ironically, dinner parties have been the ideal size for almost as long as we humans have been around. In Plato’s ancient Greek dialogues, you can watch as Socrates nimbly manages people’s personalities, provoking them without trolling or causing a fistfight. With the right mix of people, you can help everyone tune in to the ways we all share some patterns and diverge on others, the better to accomplish what Tocqueville called enlarging the heart.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
Only the reciprocal action of different people can enlarge the hearts of each, Tocqueville counseled. There’s a reason we gather together at the holidays, and it’s not just rote obligation. It’s to share in the giving and taking of the most basic and enduring human things—food, warmth, conversation, and companionship. The short space of our lives, Tocqueville sighed, can never measure up completely to the grandeur, wonder, and simpler joys we know exist just in virtue of being alive on Earth. On the other hand, there are more ways then ever to scream out our political monologues at the people around us. But doing so as the yule log blazes will leave us feeling shortchanged by life. Even your annoying relatives won’t be around forever, and if there’s ever a time to appreciate their presence, whatever their politics, it’s as one of our precious few years rolls into another. Cheers!
James Poulos is a contributing editor for National Affairs and the author of The Art of Being Free, out January 17 from St. Martin's Press.
Photo Credit: The Kitcheners