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You and That Crazy Uncle You Only See at Thanksgiving Maybe Sort of Agree with Each Other

It’s getting to be that time of year and that moment in the election cycle--pumpkin spice lattes are making way for peppermint sticks and the field of presidential candidates is beginning to narrow as the 2016 race kicks further into gear. As we prepare to visit (or worse, host) family for the holidays, the advice columnists and the meme-makers alike have started the steady drumbeat of tips and jokes about how to maintain sanity (a.k.a. avoid talking politics) over the turkey.

Why do we all try so hard to skirt the conversation? The cynical among us would say “experience,” but the amateur sociologists and political scientists out there might justifiably contend that it’s because the ideological polarization that keeps government in deadlock manifests itself at the dinner table as well. Despite all-time lows in our opinion of Congress, it seems we ourselves are not doing much better than they are when it comes to finding common ground. “We’ve reached a point in time where partisanship trumps virtually everything else in terms of cuing voters as to how they should assess candidates,” Jennifer Lawless, a professor at American University who studies women in politics, recently told Roll Call. “Whether you have a D or an R next to your name is more important than whether you have a Y chromosome.” If, as Lawless has found, the potency of partisanship trumps all, perhaps it comes as little surprise that we balk at chatting about 2016 with family members from the other side of the aisle.

Even if the liberals and conservatives in your family are at each other’s throats over the cranberry sauce when it comes to politics, and even if research suggests they may well lack empathy for their ideological opponents as they pass the brussel sprouts, their lived family experiences may be more similar than they think.

That’s one conclusion of The American Family Survey, a nationwide survey by the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, conducted by YouGov and released this week. Using an online sample of 3,000 adults, the poll gathered data on their attitudes about marriage and family, on how they parent, and on their opinions about family-related policies.

The authors of the report on the poll—which drew on methods from political science and sociology, was advised by a board of social scientists from The Brookings Institution, American Enterprise Institute, Princeton University, and the University of Virginia—emphasize the lack of difference they uncovered among the activities and practices self-described liberal, moderate, and conservative families; across the ideological spectrum, similar percentages of people said their families ate dinner together (76 percent), did household chores together (61 percent), or went out to movies, museums, parks, or sporting events (23 percent) at least once a week.

That doesn’t, of course, mean you and your family members secretly agree with each other while doing the same things. For example, while both liberals and conservatives agreed that families face significant challenges, conservatives were more likely to cite “cultural decay” or “changes in family structure and stability.” Liberals agreed that not having stability was a struggle for families, but attributed that to inequality (and, while the survey doesn’t say this explicitly, economic precarity among the poor and middle class). For context, recent research from Pew Charitable Trusts shows that nine in 10 Americans believe “achieving financial stability is more important than moving up the income ladder.”

But there is an issue on which the family comes back together: the family itself. Because although half of respondents believe to some degree that having children is not affordable for “most people,” when it comes to tax policies that favor children and families, a majority across the political spectrum support them (to varying degrees). And while the survey failed to poll specific tax policy proposals, it did find that in general, very conservative respondents with children at home hold “essentially the same views [on tax policies favoring families with children] as the very liberal respondents without children at home” (to the tune of 54.8 percent).

In their own words, the survey’s authors got a little “experimental” when it came asking about parental leave, an issue that has and will continue to be relevant to the 2016 race. Half of those polled were asked how much paid leave employers should be required by law to provide and the other half were asked about unpaid leave. The poll also distinguished between maternity and paternity leave and varied the order of the terms in the question. Those asked about maternity leave first favored more paid leave for women (5 months, versus 4.3 for those asked about paternity leave first), while those asked about paternity leave first favored a more equitable allocation of time for both genders. Respondents’ gender and whether or not they have children did not yield consistent differences in response, and even the most conservative respondents supported paid leave of almost four months for mothers and two months for fathers.

It’s unfortunate that the survey doesn’t address specific tax policy options that benefit families, because data on those might yield some compelling insights about how very conservative parents and very liberal childless adults might greet the sole attempt from any GOP contender to take up paid leave: Marco Rubio’s proposed tax credit for employers that offer a minimum of four weeks’ paid leave. To put that in perspective, compare the survey’s two months of paid paternity leave to the current reality for fathers. On average, U.S. fathers take approximately two weeks off after the birth of a child, and while companies like Netflix are making headlines with their generous leave policies for parents (dads included), the White House Council of Economic Advisers reports nearly a third of men say they had no option to take leave, paid or not, for the birth of a child. According to the Department of Labor, only about 12 percent of all private sector workers have some form of paid parental leave.

Meanwhile, 83 percent of new mothers are Millennials between the ages of 18 and 34. While more employers are giving workers at least some control over the time and place of work, a recent Families and Work Institute study found that fewer are offering flexible options such as job sharing or career breaks for family obligations. At the same time, nearly one-third of millennials say managing their work, family, and personal responsibilities has become more difficult in the past five years. Forty-seven percent are working more hours, according to a recent survey by Ernst & Young, but at the same time, a report from the Black Youth Project shows that unemployment rates are significantly higher for African American than for either Latino or white Millennials.

In their report, the survey’s authors don’t drill down into these deeper concerns or structural inequalities affecting Millennials, though they do address that economic concerns are a contributing factor in that generation delaying marriage. At the same time, over half of Millennials they polled viewed the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision as having a positive influence on the institution of marriage (compared to less than one-third of people over 65). “I’m actually quite struck by the fact that relatively low numbers of millennials view marriage as obsolete,” said Richard Reeves, senior fellow in economic studies at Brookings and a consultant on the survey, to the Guardian. “Young people emphasize commitment over marital status, but they are not rejecting marriage as an obsolete practice or status.”

Jeremy Pope, co-director for the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, which is housed at Brigham Young University, told a Utah news site this week that when people read the survey, “I hope that … it helps them realize that public opinion about families is not really some sort of polarized red/blue kind of argument.”

And while this survey raises more questions than it gives answers about a number of policy priorities for children and families in 2016, hopefully polling 3000 adults will be a good first step toward, if not getting everyone to act like an adult at Thanksgiving, prompting more concrete ideas on parental leave and other issues from the candidates on the trail and galvanizing political moderates to take action and seek out common ground.

In other words, maybe polarization isn’t destiny. We have enough in common to at least make it through dessert.


Jane Greenway Carr is an opinion editor at She was previously an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Public Fellow and a Contributing Editor at New America, where she helped to produce The Weekly Wonk.