As I get older, I find Thanksgiving has more and more meaning to me. This is, in part, because I now have a healthy, happy family but had a less than ideal childhood in a lot of ways — although merely growing up in the midwestern region of this wonderful free country still meant I grew up with blessings beyond counting and the opportunity to do or be anything I truly wanted to.
I lived in a culture strong enough to be kind and informed by religious values which emphasized both generosity and hard work, and disdained making excuses. (I often think how lucky I was not to have been surrounded by people explaining to me what a victim I was of this or that, even as I was couch-surfing to escape domestic violence from my step-father.) We had phenomenal public schools, from kindergarten to graduate schools, and a government that, generally speaking, was more focused on filling potholes than preening about the national debates of the day.
That I enjoyed the benefits of good government as a kid was not really known or appreciated by me, at least until high school when I started paying more attention. I knew our history, of course, warts and all, but also knew that in the historical context, the USA was the greatest nation on the planet – a force for freedom and prosperity both at home and around the world.
But there were some things I didn’t know. I had no idea who my family members voted for, although I knew they all voted dutifully. I didn’t really know the difference between Republicans and Democrats (although in South Dakota at the time those differences weren’t all that profound). I certainly didn’t know that one of those parties was supposed to be good and the other evil, or something. Extended family dinners never devolved into shouting matches over the president or his policies. The most political I ever saw things get at home was Ross Perot devotion from my aforementioned domestic violence perpetrating step-dad.
I don’t wish to fetishize the past – I wouldn’t trade the lives my kids lead for my own childhood for all the tea in China, and the lifestyle and technologies available to most middle class families in this country would have been considered extravagantly wealthy by most of the kids in my neighborhood. But while we should never be imprisoned by some idealized version of the “good old days,” it’s worth looking back at the past for what really was better when the present seems like it’s getting a little off course.
And there’s no place better to start than the dinner table.
We’ve all seen memes floating around the last few years that say something to the effect of, “We were taught never to talk about politics or religion. Maybe if we were taught how to talk about those things civilly, we’d be better off.” Like most memes, it sounds profound until you think about it for more than about five seconds.
There was never a social “rule” about “never” talking about politics or religion. Americans have been talking incessantly about those things since before we were our own country. Rather, the cultural norm was that there was a time and a place for those topics – and that time or place wasn’t at Thanksgiving dinner with your large, diverse family. Or when you first meet a stranger at a party. Or at the workplace. Or in dozens of other social situations where gratuitously launching into divisive topics that have nothing to do with the reason for the gathering might lead to everyone stomping away all torqued off or at least feeling rather uncomfortable. Keeping your thoughts to yourself about certain topics wasn’t about being stifled, or limiting the free exchange of ideas, or not knowing how to speak “civilly” about those topics, It was about not being a boorish jerk.
But there’s more to this topic than politeness. Politics is downstream from culture. When the culture tolerates – or even encourages – every last aspect of our lives to be political, then our culture will start to accept the government being involved in every last aspect of our lives. There have been no shortage of (mostly) left-leaning commentary trying to normalize and encourage this sort of invasion. The Obama Administration wanted in on your family holiday action, too, which is part of the reason we now have a President Trump.
If you believe in any sort of limits on government intrusion into your personal business, it’s important to stop enabling that intrusion at home. Such things have been the tools of oppression throughout history. Free people understand that not everything ought to revolve around our government, and indeed, the less we expect government to involve itself in, the better off we are. The (admittedly click-baity) title of this piece is about empowering ourselves against those who really would seek to forcibly limit our political debate.
Frankly, less politics is better politics, and better government as a result. Republicans who want to relate to everyday people with a message of less government should try promising less contentious family get-togethers. Focusing on what divides us rather than what we have in common (if you can’t be united by pie, I pity you) hasn’t exactly led to greater faith in our civic institutions, has it?
So: ignore political trespasses upon your personal lives as this holiday season continues on — and ignore them after the holidays, too. Actively work against them, even if you don’t have a lot of disagreement politically in your family. Honestly, if you can’t enjoy a single meal together without going out of your way to antagonize your uncle or rile up your daughter-in-law (or take someone else’s bait), you’ve probably got some growing up to do, whatever your biological age.
The principle of limited government which has led our nation to its historically unparalleled prosperity is about more than statutes and regulations. It’s also about a culture of individualism and self-reliance in all but a carefully circumscribed set of circumstances. Like good government, healthy individuals who know their own limits are better at governing themselves.
A post-script: Limited government doesn’t mean no government. I remember spending Thanksgiving 1999 and plenty of other holidays on duty, sometimes underway, on a warship. Part of the reason for our current prosperity is the good people standing the watch, sometimes giving their lives, at home and abroad, so we can eat our (hopefully) non-political family meals in peace and safety. I am grateful to you all, from Camp Fire firefighters to our local law enforcement officers to my military brothers and sisters around the world. Thank you, more than mere words can express.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a deputy district attorney for Carson City. His opinions here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.