Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Political Persuasion 101

If your social media feed is anything like mine, you probably see a lot of political memes like these:

Memes are funny, and they can be insightful. But sometimes we get fooled into thinking they’re persuasive. They're not.

Take that “Obamacare” meme. For many conservatives it felt like an “epic burn” to liberal supporters of the Affordable Care Act.

But if you’re a liberal like me, it doesn’t even make sense. Obamacare isn’t a “thing” you can “have.” It’s an individual mandate to purchase health insurance, a Medicaid expansion, a bunch of regulations, and tons of other stuff. But aside from that, it’s not even clear what point this meme is making. Why wouldn’t Democrats want to be “first in line” to “have” Obamacare?

The meme only makes sense when you realize that the author just can’t wrap his or her mind around the fact that some people actually like Obamacare. In the world this author lives in, that's not something that's even conceivable.

We can laugh, but the liberal “Willy Wonka” meme is no better.

This meme is making the argument that Obama obviously couldn’t have been the worst President ever because George W. Bush was clearly so much worse. Maybe that sounds reasonable to you and me, but to a conservative it would make no sense at all. After all, the reason a conservative would want to say that Obama was the worst President ever was because they thought he was so much worse than the guy who was President right before him.

Sure, lots of bad stuff happened in the Bush years, like 9/11, the financial crisis, and the Iraq war, but most conservatives don’t think all of that stuff was Bush’s fault, just like liberals don’t think that the rise of ISIS was Obama’s fault. Maybe conservatives are wrong - maybe all that bad stuff really was Bush’s fault, but this meme doesn’t make that argument. It assumes that you already think that Bush’s presidency was terrible. But anyone who believes that probably doesn't also think Obama was the worst President ever. 

In both of these cases we have “arguments” that appear persuasive to the people who already agree with them, but which are unpersuasive (or incomprehensible) to the very people they are supposedly trying to persuade. If you look through your social media feed you'll see that most political memes are like this.

The Art of Persuasion

Persuading people to change their minds about politics is an essential part of political activism. This is especially true in America where there are roughly equal numbers of Liberals and Conservatives. If you are a liberal activist and you want to win elections and actually change policy then you are going to need to convince at least some conservatives to stop being so conservative.

The study of rhetoric (the art of persuasion by language) goes all the way back to Aristotle and Cicero, and with 2,000 years of research, we can say pretty definitively that, when it comes to political rhetoric - Americans suck. We're just terrible. We’re so bad at rhetoric that we can't even recognize when we’re doing it and when we’re not.

Persuasion and Cheering. 

There are lots of times, like when we post political memes, where we think that we’re engaging in rhetoric with people who disagree with us, but we’re not really doing rhetoric or persuasion at all. We’re doing something else. The best word I can come up with is “cheering.”

Cheering is what we do with a group of people when we all want to express how we feel about something. At a sporting event or concert or rally, when something happens that we all enjoy we let out a cheer. Similarly, when something happens that we all dislike, we all shout “Boo!” together. Same basic concept.

Cheering isn’t bad. It’s fun and cathartic and therapeutic. It lets us know we’re not alone, that we’re part of a group of people who see things the same way. It gives us hope and comfort and passion, and it’s an essential part of activism. But only a part.

Even Micah White, who co-founded Occupy, now says that, if we want to produce social change, we need to move beyond protests and memes. We need to move beyond cheering and start being persuasive.

The big problem is that we sometimes get confused and think that we’re engaging in rhetoric when we’re really just cheering. Then we start to think that, because our opponents aren’t persuaded by cheering, that they can’t be persuaded at all. 

In reality, we haven’t even tried.

What makes a "good" argument?

In recent years liberals have argued that White Male Privilege pervades American culture. We’ve argued that Black Lives Matter and that diversity is essential to American prosperity and that Consent is Sexy and that No means No.

And then Donald Trump ran for President. He bragged about committing sexual assault, made countless disparaging remarks about minorities and immigrants, blamed America’s problems on people with brown skin, and sixty million Americans voted for him anyways.

That doesn’t mean that they’re right and we’re wrong. But it does mean that our arguments must not have been very good, because they didn’t persuade these people to not vote for Trump.

A good argument is one that persuades your opponent to change their mind. 

Here’s the weird thing about rhetoric. When it comes to persuasion, the only thing that makes an argument good or bad is whether your opponent finds it convincing. 

The fact that you think it’s a good argument doesn’t matter at all because you’re not the one who you’re trying to persuade! I could make an argument that follows all the rules of formal logic, and which is backed by with flawless data, but if it doesn’t convince you then, by definition, it can't be a "good" argument.

We can complain that are arguments about structural racism and White Privilege would have convinced Americans to not vote for Trump if only they hadn’t been so stupid and unenlightened.

But that would be like me complaining that I would have won a game of basketball if only the net weren’t so high.

If we want to persuade people to change their minds in reality, then we have to live in reality – where basketball hoops are 10 feet tall, being "conservative" is more popular than being "liberal," and almost 70% of Americans think that Blacks can overcome prejudice themselves, without any special favors.1 That's the field we have to play on.

Liberal Rhetoric Fail

In fact, many Trump voters say that our arguments actually made them more likely to support Trump. Remember the way Trump's supporters started calling themselves “deplorable” after Hillary Clinton used that term? 

This is something that moderates (and even some liberals) have been saying for a while – that liberal rhetoric is actually making them more conservative. One recent example is the gay, formerly liberal journalist Chadwick Moore. After he published a (critical) profile of ex-Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, Chadwick Moore was shunned by his liberal friends, and called a Nazi and a White Supremacist by internet commentators, for even giving Yiannopoulos a voice in his column.

Now he tweets things like this:
Maybe Moore is wrong and his critics were right. But from a rhetorical perspective, this is about as bad you can get. You had someone who already agreed with you, and by talking to them, you somehow convinced them that you were wrong.

Liberal Rhetoric Win

Now look at Megan Phelps-Roper, who grew up in the virulently fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church. Phelps-Roper's views on politics and religion were far more extreme than anything Trump or his supporters have ever said. She called 9/11 "awesome," and waved signs saying "God hates Fags" and "God hates Jews" while protesting the funerals of American veterans. But then, in 2009 a Jewish blogger named David Abitbol started to talk with her on Twitter, and tried to persuade her to change her mind.

Six years later, here's what she tweeted the day the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage:
What happened? Megan Phelps-Roper herself gave a TED talk explaining how the arguments that Abitbol and others made on Twitter convinced her to leave the Westboro Baptist Church, and how we can use her experience to help convince others to turn away from hate and prejudice. Phelps-Ropers gives some great advice on how to talk productivly with people we disagree with, and much of what she says echoes what students of rhetoric have been saying for thousands of years.

Three tips for being more persuasive in American politics. 

Rhetoric is an art like painting or singing. There's no quick and easy way to get good at it. It takes practice and hard work. The main reason we as a country suck so much at it is because we haven't had much practice. But here are three simple tips that can help us to suck a little less. 2

Tip #1: Make sure you are actually talking to the people you want to persuade

If you want to persuade someone, you have to talk to them in place where they will hear you. Most conservatives don’t watch the Daily Show, or read Slate or Huffington Post. If someone makes an argument in one of these places most conservatives are not even going to hear it.

For Phelps-Roper Twitter provided an opportunity to talk, and listen, to those with different views. Social media can be a powerful force for persuasion, but only of we step outside our own network of like-minded friends.

Tip #2: Use arguments that YOUR OPPONENTS find convincing

When you are arguing with someone you need to figure out what sorts of arguments they will be persuaded by.

Most conservatives don't believe that White Privilege or Implicit Bias exist. So an "argument" that already takes these things as given isn't really an argument at all. It's just cheering.

When David Abitbol argued with Phelps-Roper on Twitter, he cited Bible verses, which he could quote in the original Hebrew, to show Phelps-Roper the theological flaws in her church's position. Because she was part of a religiously fundamentalist church, she found these arguments convincing.

You have to put yourself in your opponent's shoes. You need to know what they believe, what they care about, what makes them angry, and what makes them happy. What is it about you that they don’t like? Otherwise your arguments won't even make sense.

This probably requires some research. Reading the New York Times and listening to NPR might help you learn what conservatives are doing but it won’t tell you much about how they think. For that you’ll need to read what they read. FoxNews, Redstate, National Review. Even Breitbart

Once you’ve done this, you can start to construct an argument that conservatives might actually be convinced by. 

Tip #3: Be Nice

I’m not telling you to be nice because I think that it’s moral and ethical (although I do). When I engage in arguments I try to be nice for the same reason LeBron James spends most of his waking life practicing and working out– I like winning and hate losing. If you want to persuade someone of something, you have to be nice to them, even if they’re not being nice to you.

Think about it: if you were having an argument with someone, and all of a sudden they called you a moron, or a racist, or accused you of "hating poor people," would that make you more or less likely to be persuaded by their arguments? 

Liberals were mean to Chadwick Moore, so he decided to stop being a liberal. Maybe he was wrong, but he also used to be a liberal and now he’s not. 

When Phelps-Roper flung antisemitic slurs at David Abitbol on Twitter, he could have responded by calling her a Nazi. Instead he responded with kindness and compassion, and she changed her mind.

Even if the person you are arguing with is a racist moron, calling them those names is probably going to make them get up and walk away, and that means you’ve given up the chance to convince them to change their mind.

Like lifting weights and practicing jump shots for hours on end, being nice while arguing about politics is a lot of work. It can really wear you down - especially when your opponent is not being nice. But just like in basketball – if you want to win, you’ve got to just suck it up and do it.

Our challenge

Sixty million Americans voted for Trump. Most Americans think "liberal" is a bad word. Most Americans think the government has no business trying to reduce racial inequality.

We need to do a better job of convincing people like this to change their minds To do that we need to:
  1. Talk to them 
  2. Make arguments that they find convincing, and 
  3. Be nice to them. 
Some of these people have views that we might think of as racist. It might seem "wrong" to be nice to people like this. But in a democracy racists can vote. 

We can’t stop them from voting unless we are willing to sacrifice the entire idea of democracy. So if there are enough racists in America to swing an election, and we don’t want them running the place, our only option is to convince at least some of them to stop being racists. That requires that we listen to them, talk to them, and be nice to them.

It's not going to be easy, but as Megan Phelps-Roper's story shows us, it's not impossible. It seems like we should at least give it a try.


1 This analysis is from the 2014 General Social Survey (also known as the GSS, an excellent source of data on American public opinion, You can download the data yourself here). The full question is "Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without special favors." 39% of Americans "strongly agreed," and 29% "somewhat agreed." I've warned that it's dangerous to give too much credence to Americans' answers to a single public opinion question. However the basic result that most Americans are opposed to special efforts to help African Americans can be found on many different questions asked in many different surveys. For a more robust analysis of this tendency, take a look at Tuch and Hughes' papers below.

Although these “tips” are mostly common sense, they are also drawn from classic works on rhetoric and language. In particular, the idea that we need to “step into our opponents shoes” in order to make arguments that they understand draws on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s view that we all play different “language games,” and the rules of these games come from our differing backgrounds and “forms of life.” By this logic trying to persuade a conservative using arguments that are convincing to liberals would be like trying to win a basketball game by trying to hit a home run. If you want to win a rhetorical game, you need to play by your opponents rules, no matter how weird they sound to you.


Aristotle. (1991). On Rhetoric. (G. Kennedy, Trans.). New York, NY. Oxford University Press.

Cicero, M. (2016). How to Win an Argument. (J. May, Ed & Trans.) Oxford, England. Princeton University Press.

Tuch, Steven, & Hughes, Michael. (1996). Whites' Racial Policy Attitudes. Social Science Quarterly, 77(4).

Tuch, Steven, & Hughes, Michael. (2011). Whites' Racial Policy Attitudes in the Twenty-First Century: The Continuing Significance of Racial Resentment. The Annals for the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 364(1), 134-152.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical Investigations (G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans., 2 ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc.

Wittgenstein, L. (1969). On Certainty (D. Paul, & G. E. M. Anscombe, Trans.). Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.

1 comment:

  1. In addition to rhetoric, logic is also useful. The best and most lasting persuasion requires arguments that are "good" not just in the sense of producing a result, but in the sense of adequately supporting that result. If one person has a very persuasive argument but another has stronger evidence, we don't want the the first to convince the second.