2. The Elements of Persuasion

Avid partisans are invested in their preexisting beliefs, so they’re very hard to persuade. There are conservatives, for example, who remain immovable no matter how many scientists testify to the truth of climate change, no matter how much evidence shows that the death penalty doesn’t deter murder, no matter the incontestability that voter fraud is too rare to be concerned about.

These conservatives are completely locked into their confirmation bias. They will even alter or forget previous core beliefs (e.g., for personal morality, against deficits, opposed to Russia) in order to hold on tightly to current ones. Facts are completely overrun by their emotions.

But among less-partisan persuadable Americans, confirmation bias can be overcome. These swing voters don’t lack political beliefs, biases and stereotypes. Rather, they carry in their minds both progressive and conservative ideas and can be persuaded by either. In addition, because they don’t hold onto those beliefs with the intensity of partisans, they don’t feel as much emotional need to defend them.

That presents us with a golden opportunity for persuasion, if only policymakers, advocates and activists understand these Americans. They’re not like us.

Progressive activists know a great deal about issues and we tend to pick our favored candidates based on the policies they trumpet. When progressives talk to each other about politics, we assume our listeners know (and care) quite a lot.

Persuadables, in contrast, don’t pay much attention to public policy. They don’t often read or watch the political news. As a result, they are the citizens who tend to know the least about issues, legislation and the political process. And as polls have consistently shown, they care the least too. (Walk door-to-door for a candidate or cause and you’ll quickly learn this first hand.)

Therefore, progressives’ other problem in persuasion is that we tend to talk to swing voters the same way we talk to each other. We assume these voters know what we know, think the way we think, and are persuaded by the facts and arguments that persuade us. That simply doesn’t work.

If you are to persuade undecided Americans, the most important thing to understand is that when they are considering political candidates and causes, there is one overriding (but vague) question in their minds: “Who is on my side?”

That is the fundamental element of persuasion. And since you cannot change people’s beliefs, you must use beliefs already in their minds to persuade them that you are on their side.

Here are five basic rules to help you accomplish that:

First: Begin in agreement and stay in agreement

This is a very old rule of persuasion. Eighty years ago, Dale Carnegie explained it in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People:

In talking to people, don’t begin by discussing the things on which you differ. Begin by emphasizing—and keep on emphasizing—the things on which you agree. Keep emphasizing, if possible, that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose.

Start every argument from a point of agreement and then give your audience a bridge from their preconceptions to your solutions. The goal is not to change people’s minds, it is to show your listeners that they agree with you already.

In order to make a progressive argument, we virtually always have to get past the brain’s instantaneous System 1 and engage the thoughtful System 2. You need your listeners’ minds to reflect on your argument, not react to it. When you begin in agreement, it both demonstrates that you’re on their side and helps your audience listen with the calm and rational aspects of their minds.

Finding a point of agreement is not so difficult. You can start by identifying a fairly universally-accepted problem: “Prescription drugs cost too much!” Or by empathizing with your listeners’ concerns: “You are right to be worried about the environmental impact of this proposed new bridge.” Or by stating a policy ideal: “Every child in our city should have access to world-class public schools.”

You never have to compromise your political principles to begin in agreement, you just need to consider a wider range of possibilities. For example:

  • If your listener is complaining about taxes (even in a conservative fashion), agree that our tax system is unfair.
  • If your audience is worried about government budgets (even when they’re no current problem), agree that our government has an obligation to be careful with taxpayer money.
  • If someone is concerned about crime (even in a low-crime community), agree that personal safety must be a top priority for government.
  • If an individual thinks the neighborhood is going downhill (even if that doesn’t seem to be the case), agree that we need to preserve the quality of life.

When you give a speech, find out ahead of time what concerns your audience. When you are in a conversation, listen carefully to what others say—they will provide you with opportunities to agree. Skip the parts where you flatly disagree and steer the discussion toward the elements where you’re on the same side. Repeat over and over that you understand the problem, you empathize with your audience, and you share the same policy ideals.

You may wonder: Where do I take the discussion from there? What about facts and statistics? What about our progressive solutions?

For example, let us say you are talking about making taxes more progressive. Start in agreement, like this:

Say . . .
Our tax system is unfair. The tax burden on working families has increased while rich people and powerful corporations pocket more and more tax giveaways. And that’s unjust.

Almost nobody disagrees with that. Then you might provide a statistic or, better yet, tell a story that illustrates the issue and finish with a very brief explanation of how your policy is consistent with those statements of shared belief and how it addresses the problem.

Whatever you do, never say—and try to avoid even implying—that the listeners are wrong. Your audience will stop listening. Similarly, never let your own emotions do the talking. When you are about to speak in anger, take a deep breath and shake it off. Voicing your emotions will make you feel good—you’ll get a shot of dopamine in your brain—but it will almost certainly end your opportunity to persuade.

Second: Use progressive values

Values are words with positive meanings built into them. Words like trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous and kind are values that describe personal behavior. But more than that, they implicitly communicate that the behavior is admirable. You could describe the same conduct as brave or foolhardy, you could call a person thrifty or penny-pinching. By choosing to use the value brave over foolhardy or thrifty over penny-pinching, you are framing the behavior as positive.

In politics, values are ideals that describe the kind of society we are trying to build. When you use progressive values, you communicate two things. First, because values are, by definition, beliefs that we share with our listeners, you are starting and staying in agreement with your audience. Values suggest that, whatever the specific policy, your overall goals are the same.

Second, if you understand how to use them, progressive values allow you to describe a consistent political philosophy using concepts that every voter can grasp.

The stereotypical conservative values are small government, low taxes, free markets, strong military and traditional families. These few words do a pretty good job of laying out a popular philosophy. When conservative values are stated this way, our side too often has no effective response.

Progressives usually want to answer the conservative approach not with our own values but with a laundry list of policies. Or, when we do use values, they tend to evoke negative stereotypes about bleeding-heart liberals: compassion, cooperation, and concern for our fellow citizens. These may appeal to our base, but they do not persuade undecided Americans.

There’s another way. It is a set of political values that are poll-tested and proven to work.

When you’re talking about an issue where government has no proper role—like free speech, privacy, reproductive rights or religion—declare your commitment to freedom or use a similar value from the chart below. When you discuss an issue where government should act as a referee between competing interests—like court proceedings, wages, benefits, subsidies, taxes or education—explain that your position is based on opportunity or a value from that column. When you argue about an issue where government should act as a protector—like crime, retirement, health care, zoning or the environment—stand for security or a similar value.

Family of Progressive Values
or similar values:
or similar values:
or similar values:
Liberty Equal opportunity Safety; protection
Privacy Justice; equal justice Quality of life
Basic rights Fairness; fair share Employment security
Fundamental rights Level playing field Retirement security
Religious freedom Every American Health security

Moreover, put these values together and explain that you stand for freedom, opportunity and security for all. This phrase polls better than conservative values, and more important, it’s an accurate description of what we stand for. The right wing favors these principles but only for some—the affluent. Progressives insist on providing freedom, opportunity and security to each and every American. (For a more detailed explanation of progressive values, see Chapter 18.)

Imagine you are a state legislator visiting constituents door-to-door and you are asked what you’re going to do to clean up the stream that runs through a particular neighborhood. And cleaning up that stream is not really the state legislature’s job.

A typical progressive might launch into an explanation of the clean water legislation he or she supports. A particularly inept one might say the stream is the responsibility of the city or county and there’s little the state can do. A good communicator would start in agreement:

Say . . .
It’s a terrible shame that our stream has deteriorated like that. It’s unsafe, it’s unhealthy, it’s wrong for our community.

Why . . .

The only way to connect with this resident is to agree wholeheartedly. Note that you should call it our stream and our community, even when you live in a different neighborhood. If you can, go on to say you remember what the stream was like when it was clean and beautiful. Then describe your positive values, your goals:

Say . . .
I believe the state needs to make it a top priority to ensure cleaner streams and safer parklands. We need to protect the quality of life in our community.

Why . . .

These are values that you share with every voter: cleaner, safer, and a better quality of life. At this point you are welcome to explain your clean water legislation, but keep it simple; you have probably already won a friend. The average voter is really only listening for one thing: Are you on my side? By using values that you share with your listener, you demonstrate that you are.

Every time you have the opportunity to speak to a persuadable audience, don’t forget to express your values. Even if the listener grumbles about your policy solution, you might very well win his or her support if you have made clear that you share the same concerns and are trying to achieve the same goals.

Third: Show listeners how they benefit

Progressives favor policies that benefit society at large. We want to help the underdog. We wish that a majority of Americans were persuaded, as we are, by appeals to the common good. But they aren’t.

In fact, it’s quite difficult to convince average citizens to support a policy that appears to benefit people other than themselves, their families and their friends. Celinda Lake, one of our movement’s very best pollsters, explains that “our culture is very, very individualistic.” 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 voters that they personally benefit from your progressive policies. Usually that’s not so hard. When talking about climate change, emphasize how it affects the listeners’ children and grandchildren. When arguing for criminal justice reform, show how it makes us all safer.

Sometimes it’s more of a challenge. For example, if you’re arguing for programs that benefit people in poverty, do not focus on the way your proposal directly helps the poor, instead find a way that it indirectly benefits the middle class. Persuadable voters are rarely in poverty themselves and they will relate better to an argument aimed at them.

For example, when you argue for an increase in the minimum wage:

Say . . .
Raising the minimum wage puts money in the pockets of hardworking Americans who will spend it on the things they need. This, in turn, generates business for our economy and eases the burden on taxpayer-funded services. It’s a win-win. Raising the minimum wage helps build an economy that works for everyone.

Why . . .

Every progressive policy benefits the middle class, often directly but at least indirectly. In contrast, nearly every right-wing policy hurts the middle class, even if it more directly hurts the poor. Since persuadable voters are nearly always in the middle class and they want to know how policies affect them personally, you must tell them.

That does not mean you can explain your positions without mentioning program beneficiaries. In fact, the example above mentions them. The important thing is to connect with persuadable voters and frame the beneficiaries, in one way or another, as deserving.

Americans are not very kind to the poor. Outside of the progressive base, a lot of voters assume that people in poverty failed to help themselves, and they should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Unfortunately, you cannot argue voters out of this belief. So, when you talk about lower-income Americans, you need to go out of your way to describe them as deserving. The people you seek to help “work hard and play by the rules,” as Bill Clinton used to put it. (See Chapter 14 for more detail.)

By telling Americans how a policy benefits them, you are once again staying in agreement and demonstrating that you are on their side.

Fourth: Use their language, not ours

Since persuadable Americans don’t pay much attention to politics, they know very little about issues and ideologies. After all, with America’s highly polarized parties, anyone who pays attention has probably already taken a side.

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

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 voters also don’t know an amendment from a filibuster. Insiders tend to use abbreviations freely, like ENDA for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or TABOR when talking about a Taxpayer Bill of Rights. They refer to SB 234, paygo requirements, the ag community and the Hyde amendment. This is a tough habit to break.

Insider jargon serves a useful purpose. It is shorthand that allows those who understand to communicate more efficiently. But it is also a means to be exclusive, to separate members from nonmembers of the club. That’s exactly why such language is pernicious; you can’t expect persuadable voters to understand a language that was designed, in part, to exclude them.

Second, 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.

You need to accept persuadable voters as they are, not as you wish they were. They don’t know what you know. And yet, if you use language they understand, you have the upper hand in any argument. Progressive policies benefit nearly all Americans. Progressive values reflect the aspirations of the vast majority of our fellow citizens. You’re on the voters’ side, you just need to speak in a way that communicates it.

Fifth: Focus on arguments, not facts

Progressives embrace facts—the more, the better. That’s important in governing but less effective in persuasion. Advocates will pack a speech with alarming facts and figures 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.

If you’re addressing an audience, a few well-placed facts may 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.

Stories are usually 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.

We will give few examples of story-telling in this book because the stories need to be personally meaningful to you. If you use examples that clearly connect you and your audience, preferably about something that happened in your own town or county, it will be powerful.

*     *     *     *     *

Let’s finish with a couple examples of bad messaging:

Don’t say . . .
Taxes are the dues we pay for a civilized society. Our economic problem is not taxes, it’s corporate greed. The average pay of CEOs has risen 800 percent over the past 20 years while the percentage corporations pay in taxes has declined by 40 percent. But that shouldn’t surprise us—maximizing wealth is the whole point of capitalism.


Don’t say . . .
Almost 6 in 10 high school graduates go on to college. But according to a new study, 18 percent never finish college because they can’t afford tuition, the cost of which has increased 3 times faster than inflation over the past 20 years. The Miller bill would help, but it’s stuck in a filibuster in the Senate. We need you to call targeted Senators and demand they vote for cloture.

Why . . .

These narratives do not start in agreement and use no values. They employ ideological and insider language and greatly overuse statistics. Although they violate every rule of persuasion, these examples aren’t too far removed from the way progressives argue every day.

Keep in mind that in politics our goal is not to educate Americans, it is to persuade them to do something: to vote, to volunteer, to contribute. If they vote for our ballot measure or send the letter we want sent to their legislator, it doesn’t matter if the facts in their heads are different from the ones in ours. The goal in politics is not to change people’s beliefs, which is nearly impossible, it is to get people to take action on our behalf.

To persuade, you need to understand your audience’s preconceptions and where you share common ground. Avoid triggering negative emotional reactions and confirmation bias. Start from a point of agreement and provide voters with a bridge from their preconceptions to your solutions. Show that your policies are consistent with values that they already hold dear and explain how they benefit.

In sum, remind them over and over again that you are on their side.