Thanksgiving is the rare occasion when Americans of differing political backgrounds all come together around the table. Here, then, is a list of guidelines on how to win your political discussion, no matter what side you’re on:
1) Don’t try to persuade your opponent. America is divided into three groups: Progressives, conservatives and a broad swath of people in the middle who just aren’t paying attention. Your goal is not to win over someone who fundamentally disagrees with you -- that’s as unlikely as them winning you over to their position -- but rather to convince the people who don’t usually pay attention to current events that you’re right and the other side is nuts.
1a) One-on-one conversations are for educational purposes only. If you’re having a conversation with someone who steadfastly disagrees with you and there’s nobody else around, you’re either practicing for when other people are around or just getting a better sense of the other person’s point of view. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
2) Know how to deal with annoying peacekeepers. If you have an audience of more than two, someone will probably say, “Why don’t we just try to have a nice time on Thanksgiving?” That’s when you say, “For sure, in a minute, but these are serious times and I think it’s good for all of us, as Americans, to talk through what’s going on.” The “as Americans” line is especially difficult to argue with on Thanksgiving.
3) Remember that what you say isn’t nearly as important as what your body says when you say it. Once your conversation begins, nobody is going to remember most of your facts. What they will remember is how you presented your argument. That means you should appear confident, knowledgeable and always smiling. If you can’t do all three of those things, don’t pick a fight. If you can do those three things, you’re already more than halfway to winning because the odds are that the other person can’t -- at least not all at the same time.
4) Flatter your opponent. This is a family environment, so when the other person says something you know is wrong, preface your rebuttal with something nice like, “Oh, Uncle Keith, you’re too smart to believe that.” This will both annoy the person you’re debating and ingratiate you to the audience. Win win!
5) Do a little research before dinner. You’re going to feel more confident if you know stuff. That means having a few factoids at your fingertips on topics that you know will come up and, more important, a sense of what is happening in the other person’s media sphere. We share so little information these days because liberals read and watch liberal news sources and conservatives read and watch conservative news sources. Sometimes there are “scandals” on one side that the other side will have no awareness of. Find out what those news stories are so that you can bat them down quickly and move to your home turf.
6) Know what your home turf is. What issues are you good at talking about? Healthcare? Foreign policy? The budget? If you know where you’re on firm footing, you’ll have a base you can come back to when the conversation starts to turn to areas where you’re less comfortable.
7) Argue by anecdote. Nobody remembers numbers. People remember stories: My friend is going to be able to get healthcare for the first time. My co-worker abuses the welfare system.
8) If the other person argues by anecdote, call them out on it. Arguing by anecdote is a powerful tool that also has an easy built-in negation: “Well, that’s just one story.” A lot of times invoking the “that’s just one story” defense will be enough to throw your opponent off balance.
9) If the other person calls you out for arguing by anecdote, stand tough. Should someone call you out for using an anecdote that may not apply universally, insist that the numbers back you up even if you don’t know what they are.
10) Don’t lie. It’s too easy to disprove you if you flat out make stuff up.
11) Don’t use the second person pronoun. Nobody ever looks good if they’re calling someone out. If you’re saying the word “you,” you’re doing it wrong.
12) Have an assistant if possible. Got a cousin who shares your point of view? Enlist her at the beginning of the evening to have a smartphone handy and look up corroborating information. This is especially effective in conjunction with anecdotes, and even more effective if your opponent is older than you are. (Hint: Older people usually stink at using phones.)
13) Let the other person talk. If your opponent only says one thing, you have to address that one thing. If he says 10 things, you can choose your favorite two and go to town. If you do it right, you’ll discredit the other eight things he said without ever addressing them directly. Also, if there’s an awkward silence, let him be the one to fill it. People hate silence, and the first thing that comes into their head to make the quiet go away is often super dumb.
14) Know when to quit. If you succeed in getting the other person to say something that clearly disqualifies him in the eyes of the audience, that’s your moment to walk away. If you say something that’s disqualifying, you get a maximum five minutes to get up off the mat and redeem yourself before you look pathetic. If you’re starting to go around in circles, be the one to put an end to the conversation, because then you’re the hero who relieved the tension.
15) Have fun! It’s Thanksgiving, for crying out loud!