I hope that everyone had a good Thanksgiving. Despite being based on a historical event that did not actually occur, the holiday is one of my personal favorites. It is the only time of year that my partner makes homemade Sweet Potato Pie. With leftovers still in the refrigerator, I thought that it would be a nice time to discuss the politics of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving’s political origin is interesting to think about because it was not always such an important holiday. While Thanksgiving was proclaimed by President George Washington, it was only celebrated intermittently for the first hundred years of American history. It was not declared a national holiday until the Civil War. President Lincoln had a couple of reasons for making Thanksgiving official, but the most interesting to me is that it worked as a piece of propaganda during the war. By formalizing Thanksgiving, Lincoln was setting a holiday that honored European colonizers in the North (the Pilgrims) as opposed to the first permanent colonizers in Jamestown, who were Southerners.
During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt actually moved Thanksgiving one week earlier to try and stimulate the economy by giving Americans an extra week of Christmas shopping. That move was largely unpopular, so in 1942 Congress permanently set Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday of November.
Politics at the Thanksgiving table are a frequent stereotype of the holiday. Almost everyone has at least heard a “drunk/racist uncle” story. Does this kind of behavior actually exist in real life? There is some interesting evidence that not only does it occur, but it is getting worse. A recent study of Thanksgiving behavior using cellphone tracking data found that people who attended Thanksgiving dinner with people they disagreed with politically spent, on average, an hour less time at Thanksgiving celebrations. This effect was measurable during the 2015 Thanksgiving but it got worse during the 2016 Thanksgiving celebrations.
Why would this occur? Thanksgiving is a gathering of family but it is a gathering of distant relatives. Many of us only see our cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. a few times a year. We can forgive political differences among parents and siblings more easily since we are closer to them. Those extended relatives are harder to give the benefit of the doubt to. Political differences are not canceling Thanksgiving celebrations but they are making them about 25% shorter. The silver-lining of this finding is that people were still attending Thanksgiving celebrations regardless of political differences, but who knows how long that will hold out? Logic would dictate that if an event is miserable year after year that people will be less likely to attend it in future years.
Regardless of the stereotype, most Americans do not want to discuss politics at Thanksgiving. A poll by Forbes in 2021 found that at least 60% of all genders, racial/ethnic, and age groups surveyed said they hoped to avoid political discussions over Thanksgiving. This is a rare area where Democrats and Republicans agree. Two-thirds of each political party did not want to discuss politics. If we do not wish to discuss politics, then why does it feel like we are always doing it? The issue is that while it takes two to have a genuine conversation, it only takes one person to push politics onto the agenda.
We have all been in a room where a loudmouth person begins a conversation that no one else wanted to have. If you have never had that happen then you are probably the loudmouth. If you think about it, this is a nice microcosm of politics in 2023. The majority of voters at least tell us they want less decisive politics, but our political discourse is dominated by the loudmouth minority who just want to be jerks during our Thanksgiving dinner.
It is my great hope that you had an excellent Thanksgiving this year. Regardless of the origins of the holiday or the way that it has the potential to be a political minefield, it is still one of my favorite holidays. Having a moment to slow down and think about the things we are thankful for is important. I am thankful for so many things this year. I hope that you are similarly blessed. I also hope you got a delicious piece of pie, even if you are the loudmouth cousin of your family.
David Searcy holds a master’s degree from Oklahoma State University and a PhD in political science from Southern Illinois University.