2. Three Rules 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.

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 three 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 you both agree 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 what this proposed new bridge is going to mean to our community.” Or by stating a policy ideal: “Every child in our city should have access to world-class public schools.”

To be clear: we are not asking you to obfuscate or misrepresent your views. 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 has. If you don’t know in advance, keep your remarks short and allow more time for Q&A. The questioners will tell you what they care about and you’ll learn a lot about your community’s needs, which will benefit both you and them. 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. Demonstrate over and over that you understand the problem, that you empathize with your audience, and that 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?

Starting in agreement and speaking from your values does not mean that you can’t talk about specific issues. In fact, the agreement and values “stick” more when attached to an issue.

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. (See Chapter 5.)

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.

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 listeners grumble about your policy solution, you might very well win their 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, not just the rich.

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, don’t take advantage of opportunities “given to them” 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 same chance to succeed as everybody else.

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