How to answer ten tough questions

Posted on October 13, 2016

If you are politically active, you know you’ll have some difficult debates over the next four weeks. Sometimes you will have to defend a controversial position. When that happens, remember three messaging rules: (1) Always start in agreement; (2) Use your progressive values; and (3) Help your audience see how they benefit. What to those rules mean?

Start in agreement: Everyone has political preconceptions in their heads. Say “pro-choice” and your listener thinks she knows all your stances on abortion. Say “single-payer” or “public option” and that’s all some listeners want to hear about health care. Attack “corporate greed” and listeners believe they understand your whole economic program. But phrases like these words tend to trigger different reactions, different stereotypes, different assumptions, depending on whether your listener is a committed progressive, committed conservative, or persuadable.

If you are trying to persuade, avoid phrases that trigger stereotypes. Instead, lay out your policy goal in a way that average Americans would agree with you. And then use that point of agreement to lead listeners to your progressive solution. The goal is not to change people’s minds, it is to show your listeners that they agree with you already.

Use values: “values” are words with meanings (even whole stories) built into them. Words like trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous and kind are values that describe personal behavior. They not only describe a behavior, they implicitly say that the behavior is good. Words like freedom, opportunity, security, liberty, equality and safety are values that can be used to describe public policies, and they also suggest these attributes are a good thing.

The reason values help you persuade is that you’re using ideas already inside your listeners’ heads. You are staying in agreement with your audience. Values show that, whatever the specific policy, your overall goals coincide with theirs and for many Americans that’s all that really matters.

Show your audience that they benefit: Progressives favor policies that benefit the common good. But as one of America’s very best pollsters, Celinda Lake, explains, when faced with a proposed government policy, “people look for themselves in the proposal. People want to know what the proposal will do for me and to me.”

That means, whenever possible, you need to show Americans that they personally benefit from your progressive policies. This may sometimes be a challenge. But if you dig into any progressive policy, you will find that our economic policies improve the whole economy, our justice policies protect everyone, and our ideas of fundamental rights provide the only way to offer freedom to all.

So let’s try to apply these rules to questions of public policy. We do not offer these little narratives as something to memorize. They are examples; use your own authentic voice.

  1. Do you favor abortion on demand?

I appreciate that abortion is a complex issue for the individuals involved. That’s why I feel that politicians should stay out of a woman’s personal and private decision whether or not to have an abortion.

Why: The first sentence agrees with the great majority of voters who think that the issue is “difficult” or “complex.” The second sentence focused on a “personal and private decision,” which brings to mind the value of privacy, works in poll after poll. However, keep in mind that most people are not persuadable and anyone who asks the question in such a biased manner is not likely to change positions. Give your best answer and move on.

  1. Do you favor school vouchers?

We all want what’s best for our own children. If parents decide private school is best for their child, that is absolutely their right. But taxpayers should not pay for it. We need to focus our scarce tax dollars on the goal of building top-quality public schools so that each and every child has the opportunity to succeed, achieve and live the American Dream.

Why: This narrative starts in agreement with everyone and uses the value of “opportunity,” which is the key to education messaging. The substance works because about 70 percent of Americans oppose vouchers. Bottom line—you must shift the debate away from “failing schools” and toward the importance of providing opportunity for all.

  1. Aren’t public employees getting too much health and pension benefits that taxpayers just can’t afford?

Our state/city/county must not waste a penny. We should pay fair wages and benefits—nothing more and nothing less. Based on what I’ve seen, I do not believe that the teachers, police officers and firefighters in our community are overpaid. But there are some government contractors with excessive subsidies or sweetheart contracts and we’ve got to crack down on those to save taxpayer dollars.

Why: Polls show that die-hard conservatives think public employees are overpaid, but persuadable voters generally don’t feel that way. Refer to teachers and other public employees “in our community” because voters are much more supportive of public employees they know, especially schoolteachers, than faceless bureaucrats. Then move the discussion to the related issue of overpaid government contractors. This works best if you can show an example of corporations being overpaid in your jurisdiction—it shouldn’t be hard to find one.

  1. Do you favor gun control?

I support the Second Amendment. But like most Americans, I also support reasonable laws that help keep guns out of the hands of convicted felons, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill. This is just a modest, common sense measure to protect our public safety.

Why: Persuadable voters support the Second Amendment. At the same time, over 80 percent support closing the gun show loophole and requiring background checks for all gun purchases. By all means, appeal to “common sense.”

  1. Shouldn’t we lock up repeat criminals and throw away the key?

We certainly should lock up repeat violent offenders because that makes us safer. At the same time, we are safer if we prevent juveniles and petty criminals from becoming violent career criminals. We can lower the rate of repeat crimes if we send nonviolent drug offenders to addiction treatment instead of putting them in prison. Let’s focus on what works to make our communities safer.

Why: Progressives tend to want to talk about helping criminals. We’re right, of course, but that won’t work with persuadable voters. Focus on public safety, not the criminal.

  1. Do you believe in global warming?

We can’t ignore the increasingly severe weather—it’s already causing tens of billions of dollars in damage and it’s only getting worse. We owe it to our children to protect them and their futures, and that means addressing climate change before it becomes irreversible. We need to implement commonsense strategies now.

Why: Progressives say climate change rather than global warming. It polls a little better and it more accurately describes the impact of excessive greenhouse gases. Americans increasingly believe that weather is becoming more severe—more floods, droughts, and unusual storms. Like gun control, this is a subject where “common sense” works in our favor.

  1. Shouldn’t we require drug tests for welfare recipients?

We should certainly discourage people from using illegal drugs. But we need to do it without wasting a lot of tax dollars. States that have tried this solution have found that they spend more on drug testing than they save in cutting people off assistance. Drug addition is a problem across the nation and across income groups—let’s focus on treatment and prevention programs that work.

Why: Polls show that voters support drug testing for public assistance. Right wingers have introduced such legislation in dozens of states. It’s a tough issue.

  1. Wouldn’t it hurt small businesses and cost jobs if we increased the minimum wage?

Our economy depends on small businesses. We have to encourage them. But all the evidence shows that increasing the minimum wage puts money in the pockets of people who will spend it almost immediately, which quickly generates business for the local economy. If we do it right, raising the minimum wage is a win-win.

Why: American almost worship small businesses. Embrace them! The fact is, about three-fourths of voters support raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10, so this is not a difficult sell. To appeal to persuadable voters, focus on how the minimum wage stimulates the economy for everyone rather than how it helps the poor.

  1. Are you a tax-and-spend liberal?

I am a pragmatic and commonsense progressive. I absolutely support a balanced budget for our city/county/state. And I strongly support tax fairness. We need to identify and cut tax breaks and loopholes that benefit a few at the expense of all the rest of us. Our overall goal should be to maintain and improve the quality of life here in [location], not just for ourselves, but for our children and grandchildren.

Why: Don’t get defensive. Smack this softball out of the park.

  1. Are you trying to knock down the free enterprise system?

No, I favor equal opportunity for everyone. That requires a system with rules of the road that make economic competition fair and open and honest. We need to ensure that everybody gets a fair shot, does their fair share, and plays by the same fair rules. Our goal must be to ensure that everyone who works hard and acts responsibly has the opportunity to live the American Dream.

Why: Americans are opposed to economic unfairness. This harsh question gives you the opportunity to lay out the fundamental progressive economic theme.