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Keith Chen Studies Political Polarization Surrounding Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day traditionally brings families together — many times over great distances — to spend hours talking and relaxing over turkey, sweet potato pie and other delectable delights.

But some families sitting down for the Thanksgiving Day dinner weeks after the bitter 2016 presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton couldn’t wait to get away from each other, according to research from Keith Chen, a behavioral economist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Keith Chen
Keith Chen researches political polarization. Image courtesy of TED.

Chen helmed a study in 2016 in which he used smartphone location data to monitor travel during the holiday for more than 10 million Americans. He then combined it with a precinct-level database to generate presidential voting patterns.

Chen and his research partner Washington State University student Ryne Rohla found that diners were less likely to travel across the borders of red Republican districts and blue Democratic districts.

They also discovered that when families did come together for cross-partisan Thanksgiving Day dinners in 2016 — where some family members are Republicans and others are Democrats — those dinners on average were 42 minutes shorter than Thanksgiving Day 2015 with the same people, Chen says.

The damage to close family relationships was more pronounced in areas that were bombarded with political advertisements in the runup to the 2016 presidential election, Chen says.  

As a behavioral economist, Chen thinks of himself as a cognitive scientist who looks into the psychology of how people make decisions affecting their pocketbooks and how those decisions relate to the economic systems we’ve designed. Much of his work centers on how increased partisanship has led to costly effects on people’s personal relationships.

That election prompted him to run the study, and he’s convinced all Americans experienced newfound political tensions in their families. He’s found that the tension remains — Chen plans on following up with a similar study that analyzes Thanksgiving Day 2020.

The holiday seemed like an ideal setting to study the impact of increasing partisanship on close family relationships, because 2016 featured the “most polarized” and “bruising” presidential election in modern history, Chen says.

We have seen something similar in the United States before, according to Chen.

Families were also divided over the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s and during the Civil War, you literally had family members taking arms against each other over slavery. But there’s no modern parallel to how polarized things are now, Chen says.

“It almost felt therapeutic,” Chen says of working on the study. “It feels good to work on things that matter to you.”

In surveys asking what people would avoid talking about at Thanksgiving Day dinner, politics didn’t figure top five in 2016, Chen says. But the following year, politics was the number one answer on those surveys, he said.

Chen also found that people are more and more spatially polarized in how we vote than ever before and the percentage of Americans living near someone who voted differently from them is at a 30-year low.

“The people we choose to eat Thanksgiving with are the people we’re closest with and if we’re degrading those relationships, I think that’s a very big deal,” Chen says.

Chen was struck by the idea that increased partisan antipathy and political polarization could lead people to distort the truth and hurt people on a personal level.

Chen was struck by the idea that people allow political polarization to harm and degrade critical relationships, important decisions, and more. As a result, politics are seeping into almost every aspect of American life.

For example, Chen names Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality against black people.

Many critics, including the president, said Kaepernick’s actions disrespected veterans and the American flag, but others supported Kaepernick for taking such a public stance against racism.

“Watching football before Colin Kaepernick was not a political event but now it’s political,” Chen says. “And because of that, people who enjoyed football stop watching football — that’s a real cost.”

Chen sees people adapting to political polarization — families refusing to discuss politics over Thanksgiving Day dinner is evidence of this, but he doesn’t know if partisanship will ever truly disappear. And there’s evidence that some of these partisan effects are driven by social media consumption that allows people to retreat into online echo chambers.

According to Chen, science can help us get to a better place by guiding public policy and taking stronger stances against people who distort the facts, like hurricane truthers. It can also inform the debate and discussion on how people relate to each other and arm people with information they need to make better decisions.

“Pushing back against hurricane trutherism is an example of, unfortunately, what scientists are going to have to become more comfortable with,” Chen says.

Meanwhile, Chen isn’t finished with Thanksgiving Day. His preliminary research shows that while the Thanksgiving Day following the 2018 midterm elections wasn’t nearly as polarized, far fewer people voted in them and they were not as nationalized as the 2016 presidential election.

Chen plans on doing a follow-up study that examines how family partisanship affects Thanksgiving Day 2020.

“It feels like a really important presidential election, but we’re really interested in revising our earlier results and seeing if what’s happened has been a more permanent change versus a temporary change,” Chen says.

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Lenore T. Adkins

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