How to argue over the Thanksgiving table

Posted on November 20, 2018

Now that America is more politically polarized than ever, you may be dreading Thanksgiving. Your loud-mouthed right-wing Uncle Mort insists on debating politics and you expect he’ll be more confrontational 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. They are:

(1) Begin in agreement. You cannot win an argument by convincing listeners that they are wrong. Make it clear that they are right; that you agree with them about problems and goals. Only then can you provide a persuasive bridge from their preconceptions to your policy solutions.

(2) Use progressive values. In politics, values are ideals that describe the kind of society that we are trying to build. When you use broadly-shared values, you stay in agreement with your audience. Such values include: freedom, privacy, opportunity, justice, fair share, level playing field, security, safety, and quality of life.

(3) Show listeners how they benefit. The progressive base may be persuaded by appeals to the common good. But most Americans want to know how a policy affects themselves, their family, and their friends. Tell people how they benefit either directly or indirectly. Show that you are on their side.

Below are short discussions of three issues the might come up: (1) immigrants, (2) health care, and (3) voter fraud.


Values to use: Freedom, liberty, fundamental fairness, basic rights, privacy, justice, equal opportunity, stopping discrimination and government intrusion.

Messaging strategy: Americans are quite negative about immigrants when they are perceived as criminals. That explains the right wing’s exaggerations and lies. So, remind your listeners that, overwhelmingly, immigrants work hard and play by the rules. In that frame of mind, Americans accept the idea that unauthorized residents should have a process to become citizens.

Sample narrative:

America is a nation of values, founded on the idea that every one of us has the right to freedom, justice and fair treatment under the Constitution. Those millions of immigrants who have lived in our country for many years, who have worked hard and played by the rules—they make our economy stronger, which benefits all of us. That’s why [explain your policy solution]…

Note: For Uncle Mort, insist on these arguments one-by-one. That is, get him to agree that everyone has the right to fair treatment under our laws BEFORE you move to the next sentence. A federal court very recently made that point by enjoining the Trump Administration’s effort to stop all applications for refugee status because federal (and international) law provides rights for those seeking asylum. “Uncle Mort, you agree that America stands for freedom and justice, the government must obey its own laws.”


Values to use: Health, health security, safety, protection, quality of life.

Messaging strategy: Outside of partisan base voters, Americans are focused on getting decent healthcare coverage at a fair price. To them, the issue is not about ideology or helping the poor. It’s about how a healthcare policy affects them personally. So, even when your proposal directly benefits low-income residents, emphasize how it indirectly benefits middle-class families who are already insured.

Sample narrative:

For decades, our healthcare system has been overpriced and unfair. Our goal must be to get you and everyone else the health care you need, when you need it, at a price you can afford. One crucial step is to minimize uncompensated care. That’s when uninsured people get healthcare in the most expensive way, at hospital emergency rooms, and then that cost is added onto our insurance premiums. Getting them covered saves you money.

Note: Mort may be ideologically opposed to health care for all. He may not be persuadable at all. Focus on getting him to agree that he should be able to get a fair deal on his own health insurance—or if that’s inapplicable because he’s on Medicare or the Veterans health system, his own family members. When the big insurance companies have the power, they overcharge, deny coverage for essential medical care, and make insurance completely unaffordable for anyone with a wide range of preexisting conditions. People should control their own healthcare and that means fair rules that protect everyone.


Values to use: Freedom, liberty, fundamental rights, basic rights, democracy.

Messaging strategy: As you know, the right wing position is based on lies. Impersonation of someone else in order to vote, which is the only type of “fraud” that might be addressed by current voter suppression tactics, virtually never happens. And yet, polls show that nearly 70 percent of Trump voters believe it does. For that reason, it’s a very difficult topic. Your best chance is to appeal to values that conservatives hold dear: freedom and patriotism.

Sample narrative:

In America, the right to vote is a fundamental freedom. And because we are the leading democracy in the world, our election system must be free, fair and accessible to every qualified voter. As we protect the integrity of our elections, we cannot infringe on freedom. For example, if we go too far, it creates long lines for everyone, increases costs, and denies the vote to millions of senior citizens and military veterans. Let’s stick to efficient and effective ways to keep our elections honest.

Note: Do not underestimate the difficulty of the progressive argument. Americans generally believe the conservative talking points are true. After all, they have to show photo ID whenever they get on an airplane and even when they buy Sudafed at the drugstore. Why not require it to vote? Understand that you start this debate at a severe disadvantage, so you must be mindful of Americans’ beliefs and use the best-informed messaging to win them over.