Thursday is Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah, a very rare confluence of two great family traditions. Family holidays like these have a dual nature - the potential to be the best of times and the worst of times. The general advice is to avoid topics like religion and politics. But no matter how firm our collective intentions to hold our tongues, in today’s polarized political atmosphere political discussion is nearly as inevitable as it is destructive. So our bit of holiday advice is not to avoid the inevitable, but instead to take advantage of what is possibly the most useful take-away from the growing body of research on the biology of politics—namely, that ideology is an incurable congenital disorder.
Here's how you use that fact to save the day. If you are a conservative repeat this mantra: "liberals can’t help being liberal—they’re just born that way, like left-handed people." When the urge to talk a little sense into one of the liberal ne’er-do-wells in your family starts to get the better of you, just picture trying to coach a left-hander through defusing a bomb with their right hand—no long term benefit and likely to blow up in everyone’s face. If you happen to have been born liberal, your mantra is "conservatives can’t help being conservative—they’re just born that way, like gay people." When topic turns to Obama-care and your cousin starts into his unintentional but eerily exact Rick Perry imitation, just imagine trying to coach a gay friend through being straight for a while—no long term benefit and pretty damn insulting to boot.
When most people believed that being left handed was a choice, handedness was an emotional issue. Similarly, as people have come to accept that sexual orientation is biological and not just a matter of choice, the fact that some people are gay becomes a less emotionally charged issue. Most families have long ago come to terms with the fact that a gathering of the extended family will include sitting down to eat with some openly right-handed and some openly left-handed relatives. We have even come to accept that we will be breaking bread in the mixed company of some openly straight and some openly gay relatives. This year let’s make a start at offering the same level of acceptance for differing political views. No one is going to convert you, and you aren’t going to convert anyone else, so just be openly thankful that you are all family, and privately thankful that you weren’t born _________(fill in the blank with your ideological opposite, or if you are a true moderate with either end of the political spectrum). Who knows – a little family political peace might even help some closet ideologues to finally come out to their families this year (to encourage the timid here is a hopeful, if fictionalized, example).
For a more detailed discussion see Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, Routledge Books, Sept 2013.
John R. Alford, Ph.D. is an associate professor of political science at Rice University.