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Politics And Family Don't Have To Make For An Unsavory Mix This Thanksgiving

Aimee Obidzinski
University of Pittsburgh
University of Pittsburgh political science professor Kristin Kanthak (left) is teaching a class with her stepfather, Dave Kanthak, to explore how generational differences explain political disagreements within families.

For some, Thanksgiving means it’s time to discuss politics with distant relatives. It can be especially difficult to talk about those topics across generations. But a father-daughter team at the University of Pittsburgh is teaching a class meant to encourage more civil discourse between age groups.

Political science professor Kristin Kanthak and her stepdad, Dave Kanthak, offer the course through Pitt’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for 50-and-over students. There are 50 students in the class, and the Kanthaks said they try to help them better understand the outlook of younger people.

“In particular, I often see baby boomers are sort of confused by millenials and the generation younger,” Kristin Kanthak said, “and that there’s a lot of disconnect between the two of them.”

In class, it became apparent that different life events contribute to this disconnect, the Kanthaks said.

Dave Kanthak, who once worked at the U.S. Department of Education and is now retired, recalled one class where he and the students “pretty much all agreed ... that 1968 was such a pivotal year for people in our generation.”

“That’s when Martin Luther King was killed,” he continued. “That’s when Bobby Kennedy was killed," and when riots over the Vietnam War broke out at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

At that point, Dave Kanthak added, “we all pretty much had kind of dug in on what our probably future political positions would be" on critical issues like the Vietnam War.

In contrast, Kristin Kanthak said, millennials came of age witnessing the ravages of the housing crisis and opioid epidemic.

“So I think for them, this idea that you work hard and the American Dream happens for you is just not their reality,” the professor said. “And I think that was really difficult for a lot of the students in this class to kind of come to grips with – how much younger people don’t really think that they are tremendously lucky to be born in the United States, as opposed to other advanced western democracies.”

‘They say this is the worst it’s ever been’

Despite living through the same moments in history, the students in the class split along party lines, according to Dave Kanthak. He said about a third identified as registered Republicans.

Party loyalties, Kristin Kanthak said, drive much of the political rancor today.

“A lot of it is that we’re starting to think about political parties not as an information shortcut to tell us a little bit about what our ideological views [are],” she said, “but rather as a team, as the in-group and the out-group, and the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys.’”

She said this mentality makes it “very difficult to concede that anyone who you think is a bad guy is actually okay.”

“A lot of the students were very worried about how the vitriol of politics has gotten so bad, and there’s so much anger,” Kristin Kanthak said. “And these are people with a high level of interest in politics, that have been interested for a long time. And so, when they say this is the worst it’s ever been ... that says something to me.”

To turn down the heat, the professor contends, it’s important to recognize that “we have a whole lot more in common than we do differences.”

“Everybody thinks that people should work hard, and everybody thinks that there should be a safety net for people who have real trouble,” she added. “We don’t need to create these huge differences where there [aren’t any].”

Family as a way out of cultural bubbles

Kristin Kanthak noted that geographic differences can also fuel political disagreements over Thanksgiving dinner. The holiday, after all, often reunites family members across the urban-rural divide.

“We all live in bubbles,” Kristin Kanthak said. “And so, it’s very hard when you’re put into a situation where you don’t agree on exactly all the same things.”

But, the professor thinks family also offers an opportunity to “get out of our bubble, strangely enough. … We have these other connections to them that go beyond where we live our daily lives.”

A simple way to start, she said, is to ask why others have a particular viewpoint, rather than to assume to know their reasons.

She said the goal of political conversations should be “to understand where the other person is coming from rather than trying to win a fight, particularly with family because they’re going to be your family after Donald Trump is out of the White House and … the whole cast of characters [in Washington] has changed.”