A lot of reporting trips are minutely scheduled from touchdown to takeoff; the ride to the airport is the closest we may get to a truly random sample of voters, and like many journalists, I take advantage of it, even if all I learn is the driver’s opinions about ride-share companies.
But you’d be surprised at how often drivers are willing to pour out their political opinions to a stranger, without any apparent fear of losing their tip. I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten a column out of it, but I have gotten food for thought.
This driver was a more cautious type — or perhaps he just didn’t have particularly strong political opinions, as, believe it or not, many Americans don’t. He answered my questions amiably enough, but briefly, and without elaboration. We lapsed into silence with 20 minutes yet to go. I sighed.
“Everything all right?” he asked
“Oh, yes,” I said. “Just thinking about Thanksgiving.”
It was as if some delightful breeze had blown through the vehicle, blowing away the stale odor of politics. “You cooking?” he asked.
And with that, we were off — 20 minutes wasn’t nearly enough for all we had to say to each other. We hashed out the differences between Northern and Southern Thanksgivings, the relative merits of yams and sweet potatoes, the mysteries of bean pie and mincemeat. We traded recipes for the collard greens he’d already started cooking, the pie crust I had to mix up and get into the freezer the minute I got home. And along the way, we ranged far afield, talking of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings — or, more prosaically, of the perils and delights of one’s 70s, the less-than-glamorous side of travel, the hardship of scattered families. We parted warmly at the airport, with mutual admonitions to have a blessed Thanksgiving.
And there, I suppose I’ve gotten my first column out of a ride to the airport, because it reminded me of just how gratifyingly Thanksgiving draws us together. Even strangers who won’t be sitting down at the same table or eating the same foods are nonetheless bound closer by the common magic of our most singular national holiday.
Which makes me wonder why it is that any well-meaning person would publish yet another guide to talking politics at Thanksgiving, as seems to happen every year right about now. Many of the authors who write this sort of thing seem to view Thanksgiving as the perfect time to educate your Uncle Jethro on the finer points of identity politics, or persuade Cousin Muriel that her support for wealth taxes is the next best thing to communism.
Yet Thanksgiving is a lousy time to try to convince anyone of anything. In fact, it’s hard to convince anyone even under ideal circumstances — in a Reddit group in which posters invited people to try to change their minds about something, researchers found the attempts failed more often than not to persuade them even a little. You’re far less likely to succeed with people who were invited for dinner rather than debate, especially after you slather on the alcohol and indigestion. On the other hand, you are guaranteed a 100 percent success rate for any compliments you offer your sister-in-law on her canapés.
So why, then, are we so determined to drag politics to the table with us? Why waste time on being disagreeable when there’s so much we can agree on, sitting right there in front of us? It seems like a sign of everything that besets us as a nation: We wouldn’t be so determined to talk politics if we weren’t so viciously angry at each other, but if we weren’t so viciously angry at each other, we could talk politics without spoiling the meal.
It’s probably naive to think that the politics might get a little kinder if we used Thanksgiving to, you know, give thanks for the food and the people we’re sharing it with, rather than stage an impromptu protest rally about Grandma’s dumb opinions. I expect it’s hopelessly utopian to imagine that if we let Thanksgiving draw us together, as Thanksgiving is wont to do, we might find the things that divide us less divisive.
It’s too, too sentimental, I know. But if the rest of you are willing, I’d like to give it a chance, just the same.