For political pros, keeping Thanksgiving civil is a political art itself

Experts warn that talking politics over Thanksgiving dinner is courting an argument, particularly given the current political climate. But political pros say it can be done, without starting a food fight. (Photo by anjanettew/Creative Commons)

Chris Cillizza, editor-at- large and politics reporter for CNN, said it’s difficult to avoid political small talk in his line of work, but that touchy topics can be handled if “we try to be civil to one another… which is the big if.” (Photo courtesy CNN)

WASHINGTON – Three things are likely to ruin an otherwise good Thanksgiving: too much alcohol, too-dry stuffing and talking politics at the dinner table. But how do you navigate the holiday when talking about politics is not just a hobby, but your career?

“When your job is politics it’s hard,” said Chris Cillizza, editor-at-large for CNN, who said that because of his job he’s usually asked about politics even if he doesn’t bring it up.

That’s true of many in Washington, who call the potentially dangerous mix of family, friends and politics at the holidays an “occupational hazard.”

Etiquette experts like Crystal L. Bailey, the director of the Etiquette Institute of Washington, say it is always best to steer clear of politics around the turkey to avoid the problem of “divided dinner tables.” Even more so in the current political climate.

Peace and gravy

Five tips from the Emily Post Institute’s Daniel Post Senning for keeping holiday conversations harmonious:

  • Stick to nonthreatening conversations.
  • Don’t take the bait.
  • Admit when you’ve put your foot in your mouth.
  • Don’t be afraid to steer the talk toward safer topics.
  • If you must bring up tough subjects, do it with compassion.
  • “I think it’s really important to avoid politics at the dinner table this Thanksgiving,” Bailey said Wednesday.

    “It’s been a year of a really divided country and so I think we also have divided dinner tables,” she said. “Do we want to bring that to our Thanksgiving, when we’re supposed to have our minds on other things?”

    That’s easier said than done for political pros, for whom even the most benign small talk – “how’s work?” – can lead into a minefield.

    “It’s hard to not talk about politics because people will say, ‘Oh, how is your job?'” said Cillizza, who leads a life consumed by politics.

    Cillizza said he is usually able to keep the peace at family functions because he doesn’t take sides.

    “I always tell people I’m super passionate about politics, I’m just not opinionated for one side or the other,” he said. “So it’s not actually as bad as you might think.”

    That nonpartisan stance doesn’t work for Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, who said politics is unavoidable at her family gatherings.

    “It is often a subject around our dinner table. It won’t consume our dinner and there are rare disagreements,” she said. “They certainly appreciate the job I have where I don’t much take sides, but that doesn’t stop them.”

    If she wants to avoid talking politics, Duffy said she just doesn’t tell people what she does for a living, because “the minute I tell them what I do, that’s all they want to talk about.”

    Inside Elections Editor Nathan Gonzales faces the same challenges, but says it comes with the territory.

    “If I didn’t want to discuss politics, I should get a new line of work,” Gonzales said.

    Duffy said there’s no problem with discussing politics at Thanksgiving, as long as it can be done civilly.

    “If it’s going to end up being a food fight with you and your father-in-law or you and your brother-in-law, you know, best keep it out of the holiday dinner,” Duffy said. “But if you can sit around and have a conversation about it, I don’t really see anything wrong with it.”

    Cillizza, who will not be spending this Thanksgiving with extended family, said that even if he was in a different line of work, he thinks it would be had to avoid the issue because in any “topic that most people talk about there will be some … politics in there.”

    “I think that’s OK as long as we try to be civil to one another,” Cillizza said. “Which is the big if.”

    -Crystal L. Bailey, the director of the Etiquette Institute of Washington. (Cronkite News video by Bailey Vogt)