Three simple rules to make progressive arguments more persuasive

Posted on August 12, 2020

There has never been a time when it’s more important to persuade our fellow Americans. Right now, we can save one-hundred-thousand Americans from dying of COVID-19. We can win the most crucial presidential election in history. And we can take back the U.S. Senate, which will ultimately save the Supreme Court and put our country back on the right track.

But honestly, progressive arguments are often not very persuasive.

Consider that in both policy and politics, only a small slice of Americans are persuadable. Among conservatives, only a minority could possibly alter their thinking about the coronavirus and far fewer could abandon their right-wing candidates.

Right now, our job is not to moan about stubborn conservatives. It is to focus on that slice who have a chance of listening. There are enough of them to make a very big difference.

Most progressives don’t talk to those persuadables in a language that they can appreciate. So the progressive message gets ignored. Here are three simple rules to get yourself heard:

1) Don’t tell Americans they are wrong. Find a point of agreement so you can tell them they’re right.

If listeners think you are saying “you’re wrong,” they will react emotionally and shut down any avenue to rational discussion. However, there are always facts, ideals, values and goals where we probably agree. For example:

Don’t say:

“The right-wing’s talking points about COVID-19 are spreading the disease and killing thousands,” “Trump is a moron,” or “Fox News is fascist propaganda,” even though these are all true. And, obviously, don’t say “you’re wrong” if you’re sincerely trying to change someone’s mind.

Instead, say:

“We need to beat back the coronavirus,” “the President is not getting the job done for our families and our communities,” or “when it comes to disease, we should listen to our doctors.” Only after your listener is nodding in agreement can you explain what we need to do next.

2) Don’t attack conservative ideals and principles. Ignore them and, instead, assert progressive values.

The problem with conservatives is not their adulation of small government, low taxes, free markets, strong military and family values. It’s the fact that, once in power, they follow none of their own popular slogans. The solution is to reframe our debates with progressive values. For example:

Don’t say:

“Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society,” “corporations are corrupt,” or “Trump has weakened the U.S. military position around the world.” All of these repeat the right-wing message frames.

Instead, say:

“America needs a forceful program to protect the health of our families and communities,” “Everyone deserves equal justice in our society,” or “As Americans, all of us have fundamental rights that we should never surrender.” For much more about how to use progressive values, see Voicing Our Values, here.

3) Don’t try to appeal to Americans’ compassion. Instead, focus on how your listeners personally benefit.

We progressives care deeply about people who are minorities, powerless and in need. Persuadable Americans do not. If they cared about the common good, they’d already be on our side. It is actually not that hard to shift arguments (but not our goals!) so that average Americans can see how they benefit. For example:

Don’t say:

“Expanding access to health care helps the poor,” “the police are killing people of color at an alarming rate,” or “the pandemic is disproportionately affecting low-income people.” These are all true and important facts, but they don’t move the persuadables.

Instead, say:

“Every one of us needs access to quality, affordable health care,” “when the police loses the confidence of a community, they can’t do their jobs, and that puts every one of us at risk,” or “the pandemic and the economic collapse it caused have endangered every one of us, our families, our friends, and our communities – we need to replace all the public officials who have bumbled and fumbled throughout this crisis.”

The fact is, progressives want to make arguments that are convincing to themselves – people who are well-informed, who respect logic and science, and care deeply about the less fortunate. Persuadable Americans are not like that. If you want to preach to the choir, you are welcome to continue with typical progressive rhetoric. If you want to persuade – and this year we hope you do – speak the persuadables’ own language.