Avoid Three Common Mistakes in Persuasion

Posted on May 29, 2024

First: Don’t repeat your opponent’s frame.

To win any debate, you must proactively frame what the argument is about. A good frame is one where your language demonstrates, based upon your listeners’ preexisting beliefs, that you are on their side. So, it is appalling when progressives accept an opponent’s message frame—which happens all the time.

Right wing groups spend millions of dollars on polls, dial groups and focus groups testing words and phrases to frame policy debates. Then they communicate that language to candidates, interest groups and activists who flood it into broadcast and social media. In recent years, right-wingers have framed political debate with almost mindless attacks about “woke” policies, culture wars, and the “deep state” while blaming people of color and progressive allies for every social ill. But the right wing also uses narrower issue-specific framing, like death tax, job creators, nanny state, pro-life, tax relief, and union boss.

Don’t repeat their language! When you repeat a frame, you confirm that is what the debate is about. Instead, you must firmly reject their frame and substitute your own.

In political persuasion, don’t say “woke,” “Critical Race Theory,” or “ESG.” They’re all designed to trigger emotional reactions and deflect attention away from real, rational issues, like wages, benefits, debt, healthcare and the environment.

Over the past ten years or so, the right wing has abandoned all pretense of a political philosophy. It’s not that they’re flip-floppers, they are consistent—they’re for whatever brings them political power. That means bigotry, xenophobia, authoritarianism and a contempt for democracy, supported by Orwellian lies. Most right wing “dog whistles” are shortcuts which enable people to engage in ignorant bigotry without being specific. CRT and BLM are essentially substitutes for the n-word. Globalist or Soros are codewords for antisemitism and, not coincidentally, QAnon is nearly identical to antisemitic lies used by Hitler.

It is impractical to rebut these insults and lies one-by-one. Reframe instead.

Say… Americans want their government to make things better. Real goals, like freedom, opportunity and security for all of us—a fair economy, affordable healthcare, world-class schools, a better infrastructure, a better quality of life. Let us talk about how we get real things done for our community.  

In short, change the subject to issues that your listeners really care about. If you’re talking to people who really care about what’s “woke,” then they are not persuadable. Don’t waste your time.

Don’t say “cancel culture” or “culture wars.” These phrases simply reframe bigotry. The right wing uses “cancel culture” to condemn those who take action against racism, sexism, antisemitism and other antisocial acts. And “culture war” is mostly used as a cover for anti-LGBTQ+ policies or a defense of Confederate leaders, the Confederate flag, or even slavery itself. If you can’t move immediately to reframing, insist on talking about individual examples so you can quickly explain why “this is bigotry… this is antisemitism… this is sexism…”

Don’t say “conspiracy theory” or “deep state.” MAGA is a cult of white victimhood. Since it’s absurd to believe that Americans are victims because they are white, the cult must rely on convoluted lies to arouse fear of racial, religious or gender minorities. These big lies include child sex rings, “stolen” elections, COVID/vaccine denial, “false flags” when right-wingers commit terrorism, and a nefarious conspiracy of the “deep state.”

We know that a conspiracy theorist is a nutcase, which ought to be shocking. But this phrase is not, because of the word “theory.” For scientists, a theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world, based on facts that have been confirmed repeatedly. The Theory of Relativity, Germ Theory, Big Bang Theory and Theory of Evolution—to name just a few—are not untested hunches. Saying “theory” suggests a hypothesis or conclusion is based on proven facts, which is the opposite of right-wing conspiracy theories. If necessary, refute the specific claim and move on to real issues.

Don’t say “political persecution” or “witch hunt.” This one is easy. Start in agreement with something like: “In America, no one is above the law. Anyone who commits a crime must be held accountable.” If you want to be rhetorical:

Say… America was founded on the principle that no one is above the law. The whole idea was that no kings, no lords, no wealthy aristocracy would be able to commit crimes and get away with it. Look above the door at the Supreme Court, it says that America stands for “equal justice under law.” If the justice system treats people differently because of who they are, then we have lost our freedoms.

Anyone who is prosecuted should get a fair trial. Period.

Don’t say “nationalist, populist, or authoritarian.” These are all euphemisms for something worse. MAGA leaders are glad to be labeled as “nationalists.” It sounds patriotic! Nationalist is a label that was popularized by the rise of ethnic divisions in Europe, especially before the Second World War. Different cultures and ethnicities clashed, creating German nationalism, French nationalism, Italian nationalism, and so forth. But the United States has no unifying culture or ethnicity. Rather, 98 percent of U.S. residents are immigrants or their descendants. There’s no such thing as U.S. “nationalism.” What we have in the U.S. is “white supremacists” or simply racists.

The use of “populism” spiraled out of control in 2016 as a result of Trump’s election and the approval of Brexit. (The Cambridge Dictionary chose it as their 2017 “Word of the Year.”) MAGA cannot be “populist” because it is funded and guided by billionaires. Real populists would tax these billionaires and regulate wealthy corporations just as the 1890’s People’s Party supported William Jennings Bryan and his economic program against the rich. Today’s use of “populism” is just a euphemism for bigotry.

Academics and the media call MAGA “authoritarian.” An authoritarian seeks to consolidate power behind a single executive, putting aside democratic decision-making, checks and balances, and individuals’ constitutional rights. But the problem is, average people don’t have a good grasp on what it means. Sure, it’s accurate, but for practical purposes it’s a technical term, like “sternum” or “sprocket” or “cloture.” So “authoritarian” loses its power to condemn. Let’s use language that persuadable Americans can understand: MAGA is against democracy, against the rule of law, against checks and balances, against honest government, and against fundamental freedom for every American. This is precisely what our Founding Fathers defeated in the Revolutionary War and what our fathers and grandfathers defeated in the Second World War.

Don’t say “liberal” or “conservative.” Our opponents want us called “liberals” because that term doesn’t poll very well. In fact, hardly any left-of-center political organizations or leaders call themselves “liberal.” We pretty uniformly call ourselves “progressive” and have done so now for decades. “Progressive” is quite a popular label and, after all, there is no Liberal Caucus in Congress—it’s the Progressive Caucus.

Our opponents want to call themselves “conservative” because that term polls extremely well. But there are very few real “conservatives” in public office anymore. They can’t win a contested Republican primary election against a MAGA candidate, so the rare “conservative” in public office simply hasn’t been primaried yet. Call them MAGA, right wingers, extremists, the radical right, or insurrectionists.

Second: Don’t accept a both-sides or passive frame.

Both conservatives and the media talk about problems without accurately naming who is to blame. They do this in two ways, by using language that implies “both sides” are responsible, or by identifying the evil but, conspicuously, not the evildoers. Let’s consider each.

Bothsiderism is a rhetorical tactic that suggests both sides are equally to blame. In politics, that is never, ever true. Worse, bothsiderism helps prove the MAGA argument that we need to burn down the whole political system.

Don’t blame “partisanship,” “polarization,” “Congress,” or “Washington.” There was a time when both Republicans and Democrats might be equally to blame for something. But that time is over. It is now a fundamental falsehood to compare Democrats to Republicans or progressives to the followers of MAGA. Describing events in the U.S. Capitol, it is factually inaccurate to say “partisanship” instead of “Republican intransigence.” It is inaccurate to suggest that the parties are “polarized” because only the Republicans are controlled by extremists. Ideologically, Democrats are not much different than they were decades ago. “Congress” is not to blame, it is the Republicans, usually those in the U.S. House of Representatives. “Washington” is a boogeyman term for big government, which our side obviously does not want to employ.

Don’t say “bickering or “squabbling” or “gridlock.” The media loves to demean disputes in Congress or state legislatures as “bickering” or “squabbling.” “Bickering” means to “argue about petty or trivial matters.” It’s the same message when a political dispute is called a “spat,” a “squabble,” or “playing politics.” The subtext, which Americans fully understand, is that Americans should look down on the debate and its debaters.

But there is virtually no political argument anymore that is trivial. MAGA extremists are trying to take health coverage from tens of millions, give trillions in tax giveaways to the rich, deny climate science, destroy the environment, wreck consumer financial protections, and devastate every kind of employment protection or social program. Blocking this regressive agenda is crucial and heroic, not “bickering.”

This is serious business. Both-siderism feeds public cynicism. It asserts that politics is inherently bad and that our national institutions don’t work. That’s how you get Americans to support authoritarianism.

Don’t blame policy on a generational divide. It is nowhere near truthful to blame something on the “boomers,” or the “millennials,” or any other age group. Focusing on generations generates false conflicts that divert us from the real ones—the rich against the rest of us, the racists against advocates for equal opportunity, the authoritarians against democracy itself. Within any generation, there are rich and poor, the ideological left and right, whites and people of color, longtime residents and immigrants. Whatever policy you might complain about, there were at least 40 percent of that generation who were on the side you’re on now. The real bad guys love it when they can get us fighting among ourselves. Stop it.

Don’t fail to blame the villain. All too often, problems are presented as if nobody played a part and they just happened. “Abortion rights were taken away,” without mentioning the right-wing majority on the Supreme Court or the right-wing legislators who passed an antiabortion statute. “Inflation increased,” without mentioning the corporations that raised prices. “RadioShack/Sports Authority/Payless Shoes went bankrupt,” without mentioning that hedge funds destroyed them.

People largely understand the world through stories. Stories are about heroes and/or villains. If you’re talking about a problem and don’t name the villain, people won’t understand what happened. And that just leaves an opening for the right wing to sell its story that people of color and their progressive allies are to blame.

Don’t say… “5,000 people lost their jobs at Walmart.”
Say… “Walmart fired 5,000 loyal, hardworking employees to increase profits for the owners.”

Don’t say… “100 demonstrators were arrested.”
Say… “At the mayor’s direction, police illegally arrested 100 peaceful demonstrators.

Don’t say… “The new law ends health insurance for 50,000.”
Say… “The governor and legislature took away healthcare coverage from 50,000 residents of our state.”

The passive voice avoids responsibility. E.g., “the deadline was missed,” “the wrong email was sent,” or as Justin Timberlake’s agent famously said, “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance.” Don’t use the passive voice in a political debate and don’t let your opponents use it either.

Third: Don’t talk to persuadables the way we talk to our base.

If you are active in politics, especially policy battles, then you are something of a wonk.

All too often, we—the wonks—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. Persuadables simply don’t speak our language.

In talking to our less-politically aware fellow citizens, progressive policymakers and advocates tend to make three errors.

First, 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 Americans also don’t know an amendment from a filibuster.

Second, progressives 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.

Third, progressives tend to overdo their use of facts and statistics. Cold, hard facts are important in governing but less effective in public persuasion. Advocates will pack a speech with alarming facts and figures. 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. If you’re addressing an audience, a few well-placed facts will help illustrate why the progressive solution is essential, while too many facts will diminish the effectiveness of your argument. If you’re speaking one-on-one or in a small group, let your listeners ask for more facts. When people do that, they’re helping you persuade them.