A University of Missouri expert has advice for the discussion of politics at the dinner table during holiday get-togethers.  Political Science Professor Andrea Benjamin thinks individuals should be careful when doing so at a get together with extended family members and friends.

University of Missouri Political Science Professor Andrea Benjamin

She says misunderstandings can be avoided if ground rules are set and goals of the conversation are determined.  “I really just strongly encourage people to get on the same page,” said Benjamin.  “Are we going to agree to no yelling.  Are we going listen to listen, or are we only listening to respond.”

The recently held midterm elections in Missouri featured fiercely fought battles which changed the makeup of statewide offices.  Two-term Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill lost a contentious battle to retain her seat against Republican Josh Hawley who was elected to his first public office as state’s attorney general just two years ago.  Auditor Nicole Galloway is now the only Democrat to hold a statewide office after winning a surprisingly close election against a flawed and financially challenged Republican opponent.

Relatives in different parts of the state may have entirely different political perspectives.  The divide in the Show-Me State between the conservative rural and more progressive urban electorate is pronounced.  For example, 80% of voters in St. Louis City supported the reelection of Democratic Congressman William Lacy Clay.

Professor Benjamin says immediate family members who share the same leanings can find political discussions during holiday get-togethers fulfilling.  Political discourse is also considered part of civic duty by many citizens.

Benjamin uses her sports allegiance to the University of Michigan versus rival Ohio State as an analogy of how political discussions often conclude during holiday get-togethers.  “Much like an Ohio State fan is not likely going to leave the table after I finish trash talking them and suit up in Michigan gear, people are not going to change their politics after a rousing  debate,” Benjamin said.

Most polling conducted in Missouri leading up to the election showed a statistically tied U.S. Senate race before Republican Hawley eased to a six-point win.  The same surveys that asked registered and likely voters about their priorities showed that healthcare and the economy were consistently the most important issues.

Hawley and McCaskill tangled often over elements of healthcare, specifically protections for people with preexisting conditions.  As Attorney General, Hawley joined 20 other states in a lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act which covers preexisting conditions.  McCaskill pointed to the lawsuit as proof that Hawley would do away with the protections while Hawley fired back that preexisting conditions could be covered independently of the Affordable Care Act.

Professor Benjamin thinks a holiday dinner discussion over preexisting conditions could lead to misgivings, especially if one party is impacted by the protections.  “Discussing that as some sort of topical, haha, ‘listen this is what I think about it, I don’t care about pre-existing conditions’, for the person who says that to the person who has a vested interest in maintaining health care for a loved one, we’re not even having the same sort of conversation,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin cautions that engaging in heated political conflict during holiday gatherings is generally inappropriate.  “If people are going to leave your holiday dinner upset and feeling like you don’t understand me and I don’t like you anymore, to my mind then that’s just really not the venue,” said Benjamin.

Andrea Benjamin is a Ph.D. of Political Science at the University of Missouri in Columbia, specializing in race and ethnicity in politics. She’s published a book titled “Racial Coalition Building in Local Elections: Elite Cues and Cross-Ethnic Voting.”