Animosity toward political rivals is not limited to the ballot box; implicit partisan biases manifest in discriminatory decisions at a rate higher than racial or gender biases. In surveys, parents have become less tolerant of their children dating and marrying across partisan lines, and observed dating and marital behavior segregates on politics more strongly than on physical attributes or personality characteristics. Political polarization impacts economic decisions in the public sphere, including where to work and shop, at higher larger than those caused by race, ethnicity, or religion.
We study whether politics strains close family ties by measuring family gathering durations. After the historically divisive and stressful 2016 presidential election, 39% of American families avoided political conversations during the holidays (10). Aversion to family political discussions largely spans both party and socioeconomic lines. In this context we study Thanksgiving, which in US election years, brings together family members with differing political views at a time of partisan salience. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many altered or canceled Thanksgiving plans in the wake of the 2016 election. Other families cut short their dinners if political arguments arose. Most political-personal studies rely on survey data, and lack the ability to broadly measure inflamed partisan antipathy and its effect on real-world behaviors such as spending time with friends and family.
This study analyzes how political differences affected 2016 Thanksgiving dinners through the merging of two novel datasets. A unique collection of smartphone location-tracking data from more than ten million Americans allows observation of actual (not self-reported) movement behavior, at extremely precise spatial and temporal levels. We combined this with a database of the national precinct returns for the 2016 presidential election to impute individual political leanings at the finest spatial resolution legally possible. By comparing the partisan bend of an individual’s home location and where they attended Thanksgiving dinner, we can test the relationship between political disagreement and time expenditure.
To further isolate the particular effect of election-year political partisanship, we compare time spent at Thanksgiving in 2016 with the Thanksgiving of the year before. That comparison suggests that our measured effect really is the result of heightened political rhetoric, and not an artifact of politically-correlated demographic or spatial sorting. Finally, since political advertising polarizes opinions and media coverage of polarization heightens dislike for opposing parties, we compare partisan rifts between families who live within a few miles of each other but on opposite sides of media-market boundaries, and find political advertising more than doubles our measured Thanksgiving effects (pgs. 1-2).
Following the 2016 election, anecdotal media reports and online social media behavior demonstrated an avoidance of political confrontations among Democratic voters, findings our study corroborate. Republicans, however, were more sensitive to partisan differences at Thanksgiving dinners. Aggregating across the 77% of American adults who own smartphones, our results suggest partisan differences cost American families 62 million person-hours of Thanksgiving time, 56.8% from individuals living in Democratic precincts and 43.2% from Republican precincts. Political advertising eliminated an additional 3.3 million person-hours, 52.8% from Democratic precinct residents and 47.2% from Republican residents. We estimate 27 million person-hours of cross-partisan discourse were eliminated, which may provide a feedback channel by which partisan antipathy reduces opportunities for close cross-party conversations (pg. 5).