How to argue over the Thanksgiving table

Posted on November 24, 2014

In the wake of the disastrous 2014 election, you might be dreading Thanksgiving a bit. Every year your loud-mouthed right-wing Uncle Mort insists on debating politics over the dinner table. This year, you expect, he’ll be louder than ever.

There is no point in trying to “educate” Mort. Instead, follow the basic rules of persuasion that we describe in our book, Voicing Our Values. Find a point of agreement and use values to show that you understand his point of view, and that overall, you share the same goals. It’s very unlikely you can get Mort to change his mind, but you will throw him off his game and connect with other “persuadable” people around the table.

Below are short discussions of three issues the might come up: (1) immigration, (2) Obamacare, and (3) taxes and the 47 percent. For much more about these—and dozens of other policies—consult Voicing Our Values.


Right wing advocates want to make this debate about upholding the rule of law: “But they broke the law!” they will say. If these are the terms of debate, you will lose; it strongly suggests the solution is to treat immigrants as criminals. You must move the conversation to our nation’s broken patchwork of immigration policies.

Remember to start the discussion in agreement with your audience. We know people think the current system is a wreck and that we need “a commonsense immigration process.” The values of “freedom, opportunity and security” are extremely popular and wholly applicable to this issue.

Say . . .
Due to years of gridlock in Washington, the United States immigration system is a mess. This is the time for everyone to stop playing politics and create a commonsense immigration process based on our American values of freedom, opportunity and security for all. The U.S. Senate has already passed an immigration reform bill but House Speaker John Boehner hasn’t done anything with it. Republicans in the House should break the gridlock and pass a bill to create an immigration process that is both realistic and fair to everyone.

The difficult part is getting persuadable voters past their feelings about illegal immigrants. Depending on how it’s asked, as many as 40 percent of voters believe that “illegal immigrants” should be deported. You cannot change the minds of voters about what should happen—that’s why you raise the obvious point that mass deportations are never going to happen. Persuadable voters recognize that fact; that’s why they generally support reforms that end in citizenship. The suggested language below, “everyone knows,” may not be literally accurate, but it is an effective device that helps move your audience from an emotional to a practical point of view.

Say . . .
Everybody knows that it is simply impossible to deport eleven million unauthorized immigrants who live here now. Whatever is right or wrong, that’s just not going to happen. We need a real solution to the problem. Congress needs to pass a bill that creates an immigration process that is both fair and realistic.

If you feel you have to describe Obama’s executive action on immigration, do it this way:

Say . . .
The action would direct immigration enforcement officials to focus on threats to national security and public safety, and not on deporting otherwise law-abiding immigrants. Immigrants that are parents of children who are legal U.S. residents could qualify to stay and work temporarily in the United States, without being deported, if they have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, pay taxes, and pass a criminal background check.

If you are arguing about whether Obama has the authority:

Say . . .
The only way to fix our broken immigration system once and for all is for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation. But in the meantime, the President, as the chief law enforcement officer, has the clear legal authority to set enforcement priorities to deport drug dealers and smugglers instead of immigrants who have lived and worked here for years.


In debate over the Affordable Care Act, keep two things in mind. First, Americans know almost nothing about the ACA. They simply don’t understand what it is or how it works. Second, voters overwhelmingly believe that the ACA is flawed and needs to be fixed. At the same time, only the conservative base wants to repeal the ACA—persuadable voters don’t support repeal.

Say . . .
For years, our health care system was unfair. Insurance companies charged too much and their coverage was full of holes. We needed a better system. The Affordable Care Act has helped millions get coverage; slashed the costs that seniors pay for prescriptions; allowed millions of young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance; ended lifetime limits on coverage; and forced insurance companies to pay $1 billion in rebates to overcharged customers. But obviously, the ACA also has flaws and we need to improve it. The only dispute now is whether to repeal it. Repeal would hand our health care system back to the insurance companies, allowing them to deny coverage because of preexisting conditions, drop coverage when you get sick, and charge women more than men.

Among persuadable voters, nearly everyone will agree with these first three sentences. Then you need to give a very brief explanation of the ACA, assuming your audience knows almost nothing. Make it clear that you agree the ACA needs fixing—everybody thinks so. But don’t be too defensive; quickly pivot to the most persuasive point, that we can’t go back to the old, flawed, insurance company-dominated system. That is the most important point.

Taxes and the 47 percent

Right wingers try to blame tax (and budget) issues on the poor, immigrants, government employees or penny-ante cheaters. Voters are perfectly willing to embrace that narrative. It is your job to direct attention to the real problem—that wealthy individuals and big corporations have rigged taxes (and budgets) on all levels of government in order to further enrich themselves.

Say . . .
Our tax system is unfair. The burden on working families has increased because the system is rigged to favor the rich and big corporations that evade taxes anytime they want to. We need a system where everyone pays their fair share.

Voters are for tax fairness, and so are you. Everyone should have a fair shot, pay their fair share, and play by the same fair rules. If you have to specifically address the “47 percent:”

Say . . .
When you mention the 47 percent, that applies to only a single type of tax, the federal income tax. But you know, everyone who earns a salary pays Social Security and Medicare taxes. Everyone who buys products pays sales taxes. Everyone who has a phone or cable service pays taxes. When all the federal, state and local taxes and fees are added together, almost everybody pays about 20 to 30 percent of their income. But the richest one percent of people own over one-third of all the combined wealth in America—stocks, bonds, businesses, real estate, cars, jewelry. The richest five percent own nearly two-thirds of all the wealth. Considering the tremendous benefits they get from our federal, state and local government systems, they do not pay anywhere near their fair share in taxes.

Again, for more on these and dozens of other political issues, click here to see Voicing Our Values.