Got a Family Member Obsessed with Politics? 7 Ways You Can Help
It was the family reunion from hell. And I’m not just talking about the normal kind where your single uncle tells an off-color dating story to a six-year-old or your grandma claims she can see the Wi-Fi while everyone awkwardly laughs. (I’m not making these stories up.)
I’m talking about the kind of reunion that ends what should be lifelong friendships.
This happened to a friend of mine who attended a reunion with her (new) husband’s family. Between the potato salad and softball, a family member proudly announced they’d voted for Donald Trump in the last election and no one with a brain could do otherwise. A different family member had consumed enough Busch Lights to respond that she was a Never-Trumper and knew that no one with a soul could vote for him.
The conversation quickly went nuclear.
Under normal circumstances, everyone would forget by the next reunion, but thanks to Facebook, that didn’t happen. The argument carried on online, and several months later, one of the Trump-voting family members—a young father of multiple children—tragically died of aggressive brain cancer. The Never-Trumpers responded by boycotting his funeral. In return, the Trump voters began to boycott the Never-Trumper weddings.
Within a few years, politics had torn their family apart.
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Chances are you’ve never experienced anything that extreme. But you’ve probably experienced something similar: family relationships growing tense as a result of political allegiances. Like all people, you have political beliefs and find yourself siding with this side or that. Yet, you know that some things matter a lot more than politics.
The Hebrew sages got it right: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Psalm 133:1).
No one, least of all the person who invented human families, wants any kind of strife to rip them apart. But increasingly, politics is doing just that. Which begs the question: Is there a way to navigate family members who are obsessed with politics?
While there is no silver bullet, there are a few ways that you can address political family drama both in the heat of the moment and after the dust settles.
7 Ways to Help Your Politics-Obsessed Family Members
- Watch out for anger. Brain scientists who study anger have shown that when we get angry, our brain suppresses its higher reasoning functions. Put simply, the angrier we get, the more stupid we get.
Of course, you don’t need a brain scan to discover this: “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29). If you find yourself getting angry, it’s probably time to shut up. If someone else is getting angry, don’t escalate. Instead, suggest that everyone take a breather and revisit the topic later.
- Ask a 1 to 10 question. Sometimes your family member genuinely wants to have a dialogue about an important issue. They are open to having their mind changed. Other times, they just want a soapbox. To figure out which, ask him, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how certain are you that ____ is true?” If they answer between 8–10, then you can be certain they only want a soapbox. Patiently endure and move on.
If they answer between 1–7, they might actually want a conversation. To move things forward, you can ask, “What would it take to change your mind on this topic?” If their answer isn’t insanely unreasonable, you could love them by seeking out the mind-changing information.
- View it as a learning experience. Our certainty should only be proportionate to our knowledge. Unfortunately, much of our political knowledge comes from clickbaity headlines and news organizations that make money by making people angry.
For that reason alone, you should doubt how well informed you personally are about any topic. Ask your family members questions that allow them to express their opinions. Even if you disagree, you might learn something valuable about why someone holds a particular perspective.
- Interrogate any doubt. Of course, it’s equally true that your family members are probably speaking with more certainty than their knowledge justifies. If that’s the case, try asking: “What doubts or questions do you have about your perspective on this issue?” This will allow them space for a more thoughtful conversation, where everyone (especially you!) shares questions they have on a topic rather than answers.
- Emphasize shared identities. Unfortunately, politics has become a team sport. Even more unfortunately, there are only two teams, and they are rivals. So, what’s at stake during a political argument? My team winning.
In the ancient world, ethnic strife worked the same way, so when it threatened to tear apart the early church, the apostle Paul tried to remind people that they were actually on the same team: “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11). Do your family members share a faith? Remind them that they’re on the same team! Do they share blood? Don’t be afraid to say, “We’re family and that’s most important. Let’s not let this tear us apart.”
- Leave the room. I confess that I enjoy debating ideas with my sister. We can go at it for an hour and leave unperturbed. But it, understandably, drives my wife crazy. So, she has an easy solution: she leaves. Not in a rude or judgmental way. But she’s told me that that’s her plan and that means that I always have to ask myself, “Is this political conversation worth losing a valued voice in our dialogue?”
You can try a similar approach with an explosive family member: “If you start a political fight, I’m going to leave. But I really enjoy spending time with you, so I hope you don’t.” Then follow through.
- Confront with humility. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). After a heated political debate, go to the instigator and give them a gentle answer: “I care about important issues, just like you do. It’s easy for me to get carried away and I’m sure you’ve seen it. But don’t you think these fights are doing more harm than good? What if we stopped talking about these topics, or at least stopped once we got heated?” You might be surprised how a humble, non-judgmental confrontation disarms someone you love.
It's true: partisan tribalism can drive a wedge between you and your family members. Thankfully, Jesus provided us with an example for rejecting tribalism and choosing unity.
Want something tangible to share with your family member too? How about our podcast? Our first episode examines tribalism from a beginner’s perspective and might be a great place for them to start their journey to de-tribalize.
Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.Twitter