Dec 02, 2019 1:05 PM

Education Frontlines: Was Thanksgiving... happy?

Posted Dec 02, 2019 1:05 PM


Well, how did it go? Were conversations around the Thanksgiving table collegial...or curtailed?

Never in modern American history has partisanship been more divisive. Thanksgiving is one place where this dissonance plays out.

It was even the focus of research published in Science, one of the two premier science journals worldwide. In the June 1st issue of last year, Keith Chen and Ryne Rohla detailed their massive study of “The effect of partisanship and political advertising on close family ties.”

The press immediately picked up on their general conclusions. Thanksgiving dinners that involved folks with opposing-party affiliations were from 30 to 50 minutes shorter than same-party dinners. They estimated that “nationwide, 34 million hours of cross-partisan Thanksgiving dinner discourse were lost in 2016 owing to partisan effects.”

While news media hyped the conclusions, few actually described how this team of researchers came to these numbers or provided the additional implications of this study.

The researchers begin by citing prior studies showing political partisanship rising sharply, from 17–21 percent in the mid-1990s, to currently where “more than 55 percent of Democrats and Republicans described ‘very unfavorable’ feelings toward the opposing party in 2016....” They also cite data showing “growing numbers of Independents express disfavor with both parties, and rising party defections increase polarization....” They were also following up on a study on how politics can strain family ties, noting “after the historically divisive 2016 presidential election, 39 percent of American families avoided political conversations during the holidays, an aversion that spanned both party and socioeconomic lines.”

The basis for their research came from knowing “spatial partisan sorting produces increasingly homogeneous electoral ‘bubbles’ at both state and local levels” and “...political minorities within these bubbles show reticence to participate in or reveal their party affiliation.”

So instead of face-to-face interviews that are limited in number and may produce incorrect data if subjects hide their true feelings, they used the geo-political sorting of the population and cell phone tracking to measure the population’s politics as well as their travel and duration of visit at Thanksgiving. When there are small numbers sampled, there is always a mathematically significant plus-or-minus range of error. But the huge numbers involved in this study overwhelmed the uncertainty of underlying assumptions and passed the rigorous peer review necessary to publish in Science.

They merged two datasets. Smartphone-location data (anonymized) for more than 10 million citizens allowed tracking and exact knowledge of location and time. This was then combined with precinct-level data for the 2016 election to infer presidential voting. Finally, “by comparing vote shares in an individual’s home and Thanksgiving destination precincts, we test the relationship between political disagreement and time expenditure.”

Their study found that Thanksgiving dinners averaged four hours and 17 minutes but dropped 30 to 50 minutes if families were cross-partisan. This reduction “in duration of Thanksgiving dinner in 2016 tripled for travelers from media markets with heavy political advertising—an effect not observed in 2015....” And “Republican-precinct residents shortened their Thanksgiving dinners by more minutes in response to political differences.”

We can certainly expect that these same methodologies were being used last week. And with the even more heightened political tensions surrounding impeachment and other current partisan politics, there may even be more cases of Thanksgiving dinner being called off or shortened.

Meanwhile, there are many countries around the globe with democratic governments that operate smoothly, each doing its job to keep things running, and with a populace that happily goes about life without daily concerns and obsessions about politics.  

Of course they witness our divisive system via worldwide media. I suspect that when they sat down at Thanksgiving this year, they were especially thankful.