Five most common mistakes in political persuasion

Posted on April 6, 2022

Progressive activists generally know how to talk to each other. That’s what we do every day! But the language and approaches we use with each other don’t work on persuadable Americans.

1) Don’t let our opponents set the terms of the debate. Instead, decide what you want the debate to focus on and get proactive about it.

Here’s what conservatives have been talking about over the past year: Critical Race Theory, trans students in sports, trans students in bathrooms, election “fraud,” election “audits,” Antifa or the FBI (rather than Trumpers) leading the January 6 Capitol insurrection, mask mandates, vaccine mandates, attacks on Dr. Fauci, attacks on immigrants at the border, and gross exaggerations about crime.

What does all this conservative nonsense have in common?

First, their attacks are designed to generate resentment and hate against immigrants, people of color and “the libs.” Second, they’re all based on preposterous, outrageous lies. Third, if legislation actually addressed these matters, none of it would benefit GOP voters – it’s all negative. Conservatives have no proactive agenda anymore. Remember, they didn’t even adopt a platform at the 2020 GOP National Convention, something they’ve done every four years since 1856.

How does a progressive respond to that? You don’t. Brandish your own issues and insist on talking about them instead of the conservative spin.

2) 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 spread the disease and killed hundreds of thousands,” “You are a moron,” or “You’re going to kill your grandma this way.” And, obviously, don’t say “you’re wrong” if you’re sincerely trying to change someone’s mind.

Instead, say:

“I understand this is hard because there is so much conflicting information about COVID out there, especially on the Internet. It forces you to decide who to trust. Medical doctors are our experts in health, diseases and risk factors. That’s what they do every day. So it’s important to know that nearly all doctors in America have taken the COVID vaccine, Democrats and Republicans, Black and White. Whoever your doctor is, he or she is vaccinated. Ask your doctor.”

There is no magic here; people are unlikely to change their minds as the result of a single conversation. But by avoiding “you’re wrong,” you are giving the argument a real chance.

3) 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 all 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 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.

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

We progressives care deeply for people who are 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 disproportionately affects 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 lose 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 endangered every one of us, our families, our friends, and our communities – we need to replace the public officials who bumbled and fumbled throughout the 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.

5) Don’t use wonky or insider language, or flood your audience with statistics. Instead, speak the language of average Americans and tell stories.

All too often, progressives assume the person we’re talking to knows what we know and thinks the way we do. So, we tend to use the same language to communicate with nonpolitical people that we use to talk with each other. Yet, persuadable Americans aren’t like us. They’re the least interested in politics and least aware of the facts behind public policy.

In talking to our less-politically aware fellow citizens, progressives often use insider language instead of plain English. Policymakers and advocates tend to speak the technical language of lobbying and carry on a never-ending conversation about bills from the past, measures under consideration and current law. You probably realize that most Americans don’t know anything about CBO scoring or Third Reader or the Rules Committee. But average voters also don’t know an amendment from a filibuster.

Further, progressives often use ideological language even though persuadables are the opposite of ideologues. You should not complain of corporate greed because persuadable Americans don’t have a problem with corporations. You should not say capitalism or any ism because most Americans don’t relate to ideology. Don’t say neo- or crypto- anything! Like technical policy language, ideological language is a form of shorthand. But to persuadable voters, this just sounds like the speaker isn’t one of them.

Accept persuadable voters as they are, not as you wish they were. They don’t know what you know. Use their language and you will be better understood and more likely to be accepted as one of them.

Finally, use fewer facts! Advocates will pack a speech with alarming statistics like: “30 million Americans are uninsured;” or “one in five children live in poverty;” or “32 million Americans have been victims of racial profiling.” When you speak this way, you are assuming that listeners would be persuaded—and policy would change—if only everybody knew what you know.

But that’s not how it works. Politics is not a battle of information; it is a battle of ideas. Facts, by themselves, don’t persuade. Statistics, especially, must be used sparingly or listeners will just go away confused. Your argument should be built upon ideas and values that the persuadable voters already hold dear.

Generally, stories are more persuasive than statistics. Humans are much more comfortable and familiar with learning lessons from stories. The Bible is full of stories. As children, we learn from fairy tales and mythology. Much of the news is delivered through anecdotes. Our hearts are always ready to embrace a hero or turn against a villain.