The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Trevor Burrus has an interesting article at the Reason website that helps explain the common phenonemon of unpleasant political arguments at family gatherings over the holiday season:
Politics makes us worse-and at no time more so than around the holidays.
"If I have to listen to my crazy Tea Party uncle say one more thing about Michael Brown and Ferguson, I'm going to flip over the dinner table and retreat to my childhood room to look at old issues of Seventeen."
"What are these liberal universities doing to our son?!? I'm not sure we should let him go back there…."
Welcome to an American holiday tradition. Apple pie now comes with a side of political yelling, especially after a few glasses of eggnog.
In many cases, Trevor emphasizes, these confrontations arise not because the opposing sides are unusually stupid or intolerant, but because of the zero-sum nature of political conflict in a world where so much of our lives is controlled by government. For example, nasty battles over education policy arise in large part because most schools are run by the state:
It was a nice, progressive, like-minded neighborhood until they moved in. With their "Jesus is the reason for the season" sign and their "Palin in 2016" bumper sticker, they stuck out like Bears fans at Lambeau Field. Then they started showing up at school board meetings and pushing for curriculum changes. Less environmentalism, more Founding Fathers. And others joined them… Friends are now enemies, children are not allowed to play together. But why did they have to come in and try to control the education of your children in the first place?
The answer, of course, is because politics controls education, and as long as that's true, then it really can't be any other way. The education of future generations is too important. Rather than give control over education to individual parents via school choice, we've given control to those who can galvanize 50 percent +1 of the vote. And since the outcomes are zero sum-what the winning side wins the other side loses-then the stakes are even higher. So people fight, not because they want to, but because they have to.
I would add that the structure of political decision-making also gives most people strong incentives to be ignorant about political issues, and illogical and biased in their evaluation of the information they do know. Because the chance that your vote will make a difference to the outcome of an election is so small, there is little motivation to either acquire knowledge about competing policy options, or to give fair consideration to viewpoints opposed to your own.
If Uncle Tim starts advocating views on health care policy or same-sex marriage that are hugely different from yours, the strong temptation is to get annoyed and dismiss his heresies out of hand, rather than consider the possibility he might be right. And he probably reacts the same way to your heretical views. Even if you present devastating arguments and powerful evidence he has never heard before, he probably won't thank you for correcting his mistakes.
That kind of bias leads people to distort statistical data that conflicts with their preexisting views, even if they have no trouble interpreting similar data correctly in nonpolitical contests. In this way, even generally smart and sophisticated people often become "stupid" when the conversation turns to politics.
The unpleasant and unedifying political arguments at many holiday parties are just one small manifestation of a decision-making system where a combination of zero-sum conflicts and incentives for ignorance and irrational thinking lead most voters to do a poor job of evaluating opposing views on the issues before them.
That does not by itself prove that we should radically diminish the role of government in society. But it does strengthen the case for limiting and decentralizing government government power relative to what we might support in a world where voters do a better job of reasoning about political issues. When people "vote with their feet" in the private sector or by choosing where to live in a federal system, they are far from perfectly logical and well-informed. But they do much better on both counts than when they fight over politics at the ballot box - or at the family holiday party.
As Trevor suggests, the best way to limit these dangers is to limit the power of government. But, in the meantime, you might have a better time at your holiday parties if you pause for a moment to consider the possibility that, when you argue with Uncle Tim about politics, he may not be the only one whose views are affected by ignorance and bias. These maladies are common on both sides of the political spectrum, and they may well afflict you too. That insight doesn't prove that your political views are necessarily wrong. But it should lead you to be less confident of their correctness and more tolerant of supporters of the other side.