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Thanksgiving dinners became much shorter after the 2016 election

Experts led by Washington State University are reporting that politics have become an unwelcome guest to Thanksgiving dinner. The researchers found that Thanksgiving visits were around 50 minutes shorter following the 2016 presidential election.

The study also revealed that travelers from media markets with intense political advertising spent even less time visiting on the holiday.

“Politics actually affects how long we spend at Thanksgiving dinner,” said study co-author Ryne Rohla. “Also, these partisan differences are inflamed by political advertising.”

Rohla and co-author Keith Chen had both experienced uncomfortable, politically alienating Thanksgiving dinners just after the 2016 election. After the fact, they read reports of other Americans who had canceled or cut short Thanksgiving visits “with their most politically problematic relatives.”

“The fact that political polarization is increasingly degrading our close connections with friends and family didn’t have much empirical study and attention from social scientists,” said Chen. “That’s where we leapt off with this project.”

The team used anonymous cell phone data from the locations of over 10 million users, distinguishing between home locations in the weeks before Thanksgiving and the locations of the users on Thanksgiving afternoon. This information was combined with voting data, and the proportion of Democratic and Republican votes in the home precincts was used to classify the individuals.

When users visited precincts that had different voting tendencies than their own, they stayed 30 to 50 minutes less than the average Thanksgiving visit of 4.2 hours in 2015. Those traveling from Republican precincts to Democratic ones tended to shorten their visits by 50 to 70 minutes, while those going from Democratic regions to Republican ones tended to shorten their visits by 20 to 40 minutes.

“That really sealed it for us, that this was definitely a political effect,” said Chen. “It’s not just because families that have members that cut across political boundaries are different somehow. In 2016, those are the families that were hurt the most and they were hurt especially in places where there was a lot of political advertising. That same thing is not true in 2015, before these ads were run.”

“Altogether, an estimated 33.9 million person-hours of cross-partisan discourse were eliminated, perhaps creating a feedback mechanism by which partisan segregation reduces opportunities for close cross-party conversations,” wrote the researchers.

The experts view the study findings as a signal that values such as trust and cooperation are weakened with less civic engagement. Chen described civic institutions as being experiences like “close family ties and conversation over Thanksgiving dinner,” which he said are supposed to help preserve our social networks and relationships.

“Some people don’t see losing dinner with relatives as a particularly large cost,” said Rohla. “I’ve talked to people who are, ‘Well, so what?’ Personally I think it is concerning. To me it’s a symptom of a broader decline in the social fabric of the United States.”

The research is published in the journal Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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