The effect of partisanship and political advertising on close family ties

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Science  01 Jun 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6392, pp. 1020-1024
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaq1433

Curtailed conversations

Most articles written about U.S. politics in the past few years have mentioned the increasing polarization of the electorate. But is this real, or does it merely reflect the increasing polarization of the media? Chen and Rohla estimate that in 2016, Thanksgiving dinners in which the hosts and guests lived in oppositely voting precincts were up to 50 minutes shorter than same-party-precinct dinners. That is, family members, adjured to avoid talking about contentious subjects, may have simply talked less.

Science, this issue p. 1020


Research on growing American political polarization and antipathy primarily studies public institutions and political processes, ignoring private effects, including strained family ties. Using anonymized smartphone-location data and precinct-level voting, we show that Thanksgiving dinners attended by residents from opposing-party precincts were 30 to 50 minutes shorter than same-party dinners. This decline from a mean of 257 minutes survives extensive spatial and demographic controls. Reductions in the duration of Thanksgiving dinner in 2016 tripled for travelers from media markets with heavy political advertising—an effect not observed in 2015—implying a relationship to election-related behavior. Effects appear asymmetric: Although fewer Democratic-precinct residents traveled in 2016 than in 2015, Republican-precinct residents shortened their Thanksgiving dinners by more minutes in response to political differences. Nationwide, 34 million hours of cross-partisan Thanksgiving dinner discourse were lost in 2016 owing to partisan effects.

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