How to talk about civil rights, climate change and criminal justice

Posted on June 24, 2024

As we recently explained here, there are three key rules of persuasion: (1) Always begin in agreement; (2) Use values to frame the debate; and (3) Show listeners how they benefit. Here’s how to apply those rules to three issues.

Civil rights and liberties

Begin in agreement, for example: What makes America special is our commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms for all.
Use values
, for example: Freedom, liberty, fundamental rights, fundamental fairness, basic rights, constitutional rights, personal privacy, equal opportunity, equal protection, fairness, stopping discrimination and government intrusion.
Show how they benefit
, for example: If other Americans lose their rights, you may be next. The only way to guarantee your own rights and freedoms is to protect everyone’s.

Americans are losing their fundamental freedoms. MAGA is banning books, for heaven’s sake! They are blocking teachers from talking about sexism, racism, and even slavery. They’ve enacted state and local laws to criminalize peaceful protests. They’re using government power to discriminate against people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. They’re banning abortion and curtailing both birth control and in vitro fertilization. And, of course, they’re trying to overturn lawful elections and destroy democracy itself.

Freedom is our strongest argument, if only we would argue it. Here is how you might talk about it generally:

Say… What makes America special is our commitment to protect fundamental rights and freedoms. Our country was founded on freedom. Hundreds of thousands of Americans fought and died to preserve our freedoms. In a democracy, the only way for you to protect your own freedom is to protect everyone’s. If someone else’s favorite book can be banned, so can yours. If someone else’s peaceful protest can be shut down, so can yours. That’s why we must [explain your issue]…

Climate Change

Begin in agreement, for example: We must protect our own health, safety and quality of life.
Use values, for example: Security, safety, health, protection, responsibility, quality of life.
Show how they benefit
, for example: We need to act now to protect ourselves, our children and grandchildren.

At least two-thirds of Americans understand that climate change is a real problem, including an overwhelming percentage of persuadable voters. Those who don’t believe in climate change are part of the right-wing base; they are simply not persuadable.

This is an issue where, strangely, persuadable Americans know very little about the facts. Only about one-in-ten Americans understand that there is a strong scientific consensus on climate change, so a Yale study suggests that one fact is especially persuasive: Virtually all climate scientists agree that humans are causing climate change.

Say… We must protect the health and safety of our children and grandchildren, and they face a deadly problem. As virtually all climate scientists agree, humans are causing climate change, bringing heat waves, wildfires, higher sea levels, and much more dangerous storms. But we know how to implement clean energy solutions, it just requires political will. MAGA Republicans will do nothing about climate change. If you want to protect your children’s health and safety, our side is the only one that will do it.

If the conversation continues, you might add that 19 of the 20 hottest years on record have occurred since 2000.


Begin in agreement, for example: The most fundamental job of our city/county/state is to protect people from crime.
Use values
, for example: Security, safety, protection, responsibility, justice.
Show how they benefit, for example: Our policies will make you and your community safer.

When you’re talking about crime, don’t begin with the ideas of fairness or equal opportunity; don’t lead with the underlying causes of crime. Persuadable voters want to know, most of all, that you will protect them. In fact, it shouldn’t be hard to explain since that’s what all good progressive criminal justice policies accomplish—they prevent crime, reduce recidivism and improve the quality of life for everyone in the community.

Don’t say… Rights of criminals
Say… Security, safety, protection, responsibility, justice

Conversely, right wing policies—like giving long prison sentences to nonviolent drug offenders—take hundreds of millions of dollars away from strategies that more effectively fight drug abuse and prevent crime.

Say… The most fundamental job of government is to protect you and your community from crime. That means arresting and prosecuting violent offenders. It also means preventing crimes from ever happening, changing tactics that lead toward the wrong suspects, and using the best technology to identify the guilty while protecting the innocent. We need to make you and your community safer.

Everyone wants safer communities. But what if the progressive policy is specifically about the rights of the accused? For example, what about policies to require electronic recording of interrogations, reform police procedures for lineups, or create commissions to research whether imprisoned people are actually innocent? Emphasize that for every wrongly convicted person there is an actual perpetrator who has escaped justice and remains a threat to our public safety. Point out that there are more modern practices that have been proven to work better than current ones. Say that we owe it to the victim, as well as the whole community, to find and punish the real criminal. For example:

Say… The whole point of this policy is to protect you from crime. A lot of other jurisdictions get better evidence from suspects and witnesses by requiring that all police questioning be electronically recorded. It protects the innocent and makes it easier to convict the guilty. Technology has rapidly changed and we should take advantage of it.