WASHINGTON — Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer took a call recently that summed up the apprehension gnawing at many families this week amid frenetic grocery shopping and meal planning.
“A parent said, ‘I have two daughters and they have not spoken to each other since the election,’ ” recalled Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse.
“They’ll both be home for Thanksgiving,” the caller pleaded. “What do I do?”
Thanksgiving dinner conversation with family, ever fraught with the possibility for hot tempers, has the potential to become even trickier this year, thanks to the nation’s deeply contentious politics and a president who is never shy to Tweet what’s on his mind.
Lukensmeyer’s group, and the Washington-based Faith & Politics Institute, are leading an effort to turn down the tension, and they’ve enlisted the help of more than a dozen members of Congress — including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland.
Hoyer, the Democratic minority whip, and Rep. Steve Scalise, his Republican counterpart, recorded a video for the effort. The pair talk about civility for at least as long as it takes to eat a helping of mashed potatoes.
Their discussion focuses on the shooting in June at a charity baseball game practice that left Scalise and another man critically injured, and sent two others to the hospital. Scalise spent months recovering. He returned in September to a bipartisan standing ovation in the House.
“All of us felt attacked. We were one,” Hoyer, sitting next to Scalise, says in the video. “We need to be respectful of one another — have differences, but lift one another up.”
Scalise recalled the moment when he stepped into the House chamber for the first time after the shooting.
“Sometimes we disagree, but to see that united body — all Republicans, all Democrats together … it was a bonding experience,” the Louisiana Republican said. “It was incredibly emotional for me, and uplifting.”
Seventeen members of Congress recorded video messages for the groups.
Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat from Northern Virginia, said it’s fine to debate, but “we can respect each other’s motivation.”
Rep. Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, said “there’s a number of people in the Congress now that are committed to changing the tone here in Washington.”
Despite the ostensible contradiction in having members of Congress preach the virtues of civility, organizers said lawmakers might be the best messengers. Joan M. Mooney, president of the Faith & Politics Institute, said members of Congress are practiced at debating policy without getting personal.
“They’re probably the best at understanding that you have to keep coming back to the table,” Mooney said. “You can’t engage with one another successfully unless you keep a modicum of dignity and respect.”
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And so the groups are hoping to share some of the goodwill from the videos for a project called “Setting the Table for Civility.” The National Institute for Civil Discourse, based at the University of Arizona, has created a “tool kit” to help family members with opposing political views not only get through the holidays, but tackle divisive issues constructively.
The institute has tested conversation starters — “what are you most thankful for about living in America?” and “how do you feel about the deep divisions and incivility we see now in our country?” — as a way to get into political discussions without launching a familial civil war.
The organization has also created a “Twenty Questions” game, and has posted online tip sheets for how to “avoid the food fight” and “managing stress during difficult conversations.”
“We came to the conclusion that there was a real hunger among the American people to do something about the level that our political and public discourse has become degraded to,” Lukensmeyer said.
“The good news in this story is that people who both voted for [Hillary] Clinton and voted for [Donald J.] Trump know how divisive this has gotten,” she said.
Lukensmeyer said she told the parent who called her to speak with the siblings before they came home, and to note the importance of family being together.
And she suggested asking gently if “they both would consider just leaving politics at the door.”