Table Talk: Four Ways to Respond to Friends and Relatives Raging Against Government Over the Mashed Potatoes

It’s Thanksgiving week: Family gathering round the table to eat, to share, to love, say a few words of gratitude. And – if your family is anything like mine – things could spiral into a boisterous political argument. Maybe your family doesn’t talk politics at the table (lucky you!), but you never know when you might hear uncle so-and-so rattle off a few choice “facts” from Fox News. Hey, we’ve got your back: here are few ways to counter an ill-informed rant against public systems and structures that actually work to keep us all safer and more secure. Let’s hope they don’t leave you written out of the will!

First thing you need to know: facts don’t win arguments. Values do. If you want to persuade, you need to use rhetoric and values. Either start by agreeing and then pivot to the point you want to make or just move into shifting the conversation in a more productive way. Here are some examples. 

1.  The government has just gotten too big! We just can’t afford it; we’ve got to cut.

What you can say: I don’t think it is really about size. The question is really: what do we want our government to do? And then how we make sure it responds to OUR priorities?

We all want to make sure we drink clean water, drive on safe roads, and all of our kids get the opportunity to have the best education we can give them. To make sure all of that happens, we need a government that works for us – not lobbyists and special interests. That means we have to pay more attention to who’s running for office and what they do once they get into office. And boy, do we need to limit campaign contributions; we want our representative beholden to us, not fat cats.

Why this is true: Public goods, including education, infrastructure, and research and development, as well as earned benefits like Social Security and unemployment insurance, have improved the quality of American life.  But the cuts are really hitting a lot of worthy programs like Meals on Wheels and Head Start. Do you know they’ve already cut $85 billion on programs like this?   

2.  The deficit/debt/spending levels are too high! The government should live within its means.

What you can say:

Well, we all do a little forward spending. If you have a mortgage, you probably have a debt that is two or three times your salary. But it probably makes sense for you to do that – you’re not just throwing away money on rent! We just need to make sure the government is spending on stuff that is important to us. You know, we all want government to help out after a hurricane or tornado. We think it’s a good investment to build and repair roads and bridges and have an educated workforce.

We just have to figure how to pay for what we need. Did you know corporations are paying a lot less today in taxes than they used to and are trying to get Congress to cut even more? When Eisenhower was president, corporations’ taxes paid 1/3 of the federal budget; now they just pay 1/10. If they paid the same amount they used to, we wouldn’t have a deficit or debt problem.

Why this is true: Federal debt = about the same as one year of economic activity (GDP).  The deficit has dropped from 10 percent to 4 percent of GDP between 2009 and 2013. How much debt do you still owe on your house, relative to your income? Most of the national debt was from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and tax cuts for wealthy people that George W. Bush gave in 2000s; the debt Obama added was because the financial meltdown, which also happened on Bush’s watch.

3.  Washington doesn’t understand/care about people like us! The government should get out of our way.

What you can say:

Did you know there are 22 million public employees in this country, and only 2 million are in the federal government? (Politicians do not equal the federal government.) And I saw this nifty map that showed where the federal employees work. Did you know they’re all over the country? There are [fill in the number appropriate to your area] in our state and [fill in the number appropriate to your area] in our county.

Click here for a larger version of the interactive map.

I agree with you that a lot of the members of Congress are out of touch with real people. We have to stop electing millionaires to Congress and then thinking they are going to watch out for the interests of working people. But I felt really bad for the federal employees who got hurt during the shutdown. That made no sense – VA nurses and doctors, park rangers, food inspectors. I actually learned a lot about all the stuff the federal government does. We need these folks to do their jobs . I think the shutdown really brought home to people how much government matters in our everyday lives!

Why this is true: While the politics in Washington can be discouraging, there are many officials, interest groups, and federal employees who are working every day to improve the lives of Americans, regardless of naysayers.

4.  The government can’t even design a working website. Why should we trust them to do anything?

What you can say:

Yeah, what a mess that website was. I don’t know why they couldn’t hire better contractors. Just goes to show that getting the private sector involved in public business doesn’t guarantee everything goes smoothly. It still means someone has to supervise those guys and stay on top of them or we won’t get good value for the money those contractors charge us.

But it seems like a lot of people are going to be better off. All those folks who couldn’t get health insurance because they had had cancer or some chronic condition. And I’ve been reading more stories about people who find out that they really can get cheaper health care once they get on the site or talk to one of those navigators. And cousin Beth gets to stay on Uncle John’s health care plan until she finds a job that actually provides health insurance. How’s the job search going, Beth? Want me to send your resume around?


(We’d love to hear if you used these, if they worked, what other questions stumped you at the Thanksgiving Day table, etc. Tell us what you need and we’ll see what we can provide!)

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It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop. Confucius