The Lost Art of Political Persuasion

 

Persuasion used to matter in politics. A good politician was someone with the inclination — and the skill — to convince people who weren’t among his supporters to endorse his preferred policy or legislation.

There are many ways to accomplish this. Lyndon Johnson operated at the retail level, so to speak. Johnson was a master at twisting arms in the Senate, and cajoling members on both sides of the aisle into forming a coalition to pass whatever legislation he wanted. In contrast, Ronald Reagan worked wholesale. He had a genius for convincing millions of voters he was right and — through them — convincing his political opponents that supporting the president’s policies was the best way to keep their jobs.

But in the last decade or so, persuasion in politics has become like cursive writing in high school; it’s a lost art.
Bush Tried, Obama Doesn’t Bother
George W. Bush, for example, genuinely wanted to convince people he was right about Iraq. But he had absolutely no talent for persuasion; nor, alas, did he have the sense to bring anyone who did have a talent for persuasion into his administration. After two terms in the White House, the total number of Americans who changed their minds in favor of the Iraq War was, roughly, zero.

President Obama is on-track to match that sorry record. He exudes contempt for anyone who disagrees with him about the war, Obamacare, or about any other issue; when he speaks, it’s obvious from his choice of words and body language that he doesn’t think it’s worth his valuable time to try and convince people who are just too stupid to understand.

It’s getting worse. Can you name even one of the likely presidential contenders who has displayed the inclination — let alone the skill — to convince people to actually change their minds about an issue? Neither can I.

In politics, the alternative to persuasion is playing to the base. You identify your natural supporters — libertarians, social conservatives, labor unions, soccer moms, Tea Party activists, or whomever — and then you throw as much raw meat at them as you can. You tell them whatever they want to hear, precisely as they want to hear it. You don’t worry that voters who aren’t part of your base won’t understand what you’re talking about, or may be offended by the words you use to make your points; in fact, offending other voters is one of the best ways to convince the base that you’re their guy or gal.

It’s obvious why playing to the base is so attractive to ambitious politicians: it draws the media’s attention, and that helps raise lot of money, fast. But there’s a third reason that isn’t so obvious, and that lies at the core of why so many of today’s politicians don’t even bother to reach out beyond their natural supporters: it’s easy.

When you play the base, you just stand at the podium and let fly. If you have even an ounce of political juice in your veins, you don’t have to struggle to find the right words, or the right slogans. They come naturally; after all, you’re talking to people who already agree with you about everything. It’s like having supper with friends who share your own political views. You can just relax and speak in a kind of shorthand, confident that everyone at the table “gets it.”

Persuasion, on the other hand, is hard. Convincing people to change their minds often requires that you appeal to their intellect rather than their emotions. You actually have to make your case, and you have to make it in a way that your audience will grasp and consider worth pondering. And because so many of the people you’re trying to convince don’t share your ideology, you must choose words and facts that will overcome their doubts and suspicions, and thus help close the gap between you. And you must do this in a way that broadens support for your policies without losing your original base. Persuasion takes a lot of effort, and it’s often a trial-and-error sort of process; a sense of humor helps.
It’s Partly Our Fault
In fairness to our politicians, it may be harder now than ever before to convince people to change their minds. It’s human nature to prefer validation than challenge. And with today’s technology, each of us can choose whatever political bubble suits us best, then live in that bubble without ever stepping outside. We can read only those websites that reflect our own political views, listen to only those radio talk show hosts whose politics we like, and we can watch whatever television news network suits our own ideology. We cannot chose our relatives, but we can choose our friends; for most of us that means carefully choosing friends whose political views match our own.

And because we now live in our own political bubbles, we are falling out of the habit of having our views challenged; of being told that we are wrong about an issue and need to rethink it. And the less often our views are challenged, the less comfortable we become with changing our minds, and the harder it becomes to do it.

Admitting you’ve been wrong has gone from being an admirable quality of character to being an indicator of personal weakness. It’s uncool. When’s the last time you heard a talking head on Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC say something like this to another talking head: Gee, that’s an interesting point you’ve just made. I hadn’t realized that or thought about it in quite that way. I’d like to change my position on this issue. Surely not often; maybe never.

Losing the art of persuasion in politics is worse than sad: it’s dangerous. It means that American politics will become rougher, nastier, and more like a civil war without guns — at least for a while. It means the political differences among us will become sharper, the divisions among us deeper, and the gaps that separate us even wider than they are now. It means the United States that we bequeath to our children will be less a country than a collection of irreconcilable factions who history has trapped into sharing the same piece of geography.

If you want a glimpse of what that might be like, just look at Iraq.

Image Credit: Shutterstock user Ellagrin.

Published in General, Politics
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  1. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    BastiatJunior:

    Tuck:Darnit, I thought this was going to be a post about dueling.

    But I think to a certain extent you’re misdiagnosing the problem: persuasion doesn’t work so well when you’re dealing with religious fanatics. And this is what the Left is: a religion.

    There are a lot of uncommitted types that aren’t of the religious left. Trouble is, they only hear one side of the argument.

    Ah, but the question was not “how do we persuade the undecided.”.

    The question was, “how do we persuade those who disagree with us.”

    • #31
  2. Herbert E. Meyer Contributor
    Herbert E. Meyer
    @HerbertEMeyer

    Whew!  This conversation is getting too complicated for a simple soul like me…..

    I was merely trying to point out that there’s a difference between asserting and persuading, and that an argument isn’t the same thing as an explanation.

    Can’t we turn our attention, and our energy, to talking about how we might, possibly, get more people to understand and then share our points of view?  In reading your comments, I’m getting the idea of most of you think this is, simply, impossible.  I’ll admit it’s difficult….but I believe it can be done.

    Are all of you really as pessimistic as you seem to be?

    • #32
  3. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Herbert E. Meyer: Are all of you really as pessimistic as you seem to be?

    I’m not.  There are the uncommitted, but also the not very committed.  Only the religious left is completely unpersuadable.

    I’m changed from liberal to conservative 34 years ago.  Why?  That was the first time I was exposed to the conservative point of view in a way that wasn’t simply assertion.

    The good news is that Obama has provided us a mountain of evidence we can use.  The bad news is we still have the same political consultants.

    • #33
  4. user_105642 Member
    user_105642
    @DavidFoster

    This article suggests that the Democrats’s use of their database system “Catalyst” has informed them to concentrate more on stirring up left-wing-oriented voters with historically low propensity to vote, and less on persuading the undecided and those who lean the other way.  Such tactics, of course, do not lead to a focus on political persuasion.

    Also, I just put up a post on a predecessor to Catalist–the work done by a company called Simlmatics on behalf of the 1960 Kennedy campaign—and a novel by Eugene Burdick which explored computerized electoral tactics in the context of a fictional 1964 Republican campaign.  Catalist, “The 480,” and the Real 480.

    • #34
  5. user_409996 Inactive
    user_409996
    @EdwardSmith

    Herbert,

    Reading your essay and the comments I still find myself going back to my initial reaction:

    There are political differences, and there are philosophical differences.  Political differences revolve around differing approaches to what is in the end a common goal.

    Getting as many people who are currently unemployed back into gainful employment can be a political conversation.  Let’s assume a road that is clearly essential to local commerce needs to be paved or repaved.  The question might then be is this paving or repaving to be done by private contractors or by government employees, and how to pay for the maintenance (tolls or taxes).

    But what is the role of government, what is the business of government, and most importantly, is there a size and scope of government that is counterproductive for the society, the economy and the culture … this is a philosophical difference that people mistake for a political one.   These questions can bring to light diametrically opposite positions that cannot be reconciled.

    The are positions worth fighting for, where there is either victory or defeat.  And there are too many people in politics who do not realize this.  Or perhaps do not want to.  The very notion of fighting frightens them as much as it did the French when Hitler moved German troops into the Rhineland.  They make “Grand Deals” with terms that mean them losing, inevitably, until there are no more deals to be made, not even terms of surrender to be negotiated.

    It would be a grand world were this not so, but we are born in Sin, and it infects the world we live in and the choices it is necessary for us to make.

    • #35
  6. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Remember all the jokes Reagan used to crack about liberals?  Is anyone in politics doing that nowadays?

    • #36
  7. Tom Meyer Contributor
    Tom Meyer
    @tommeyer

    • #37
  8. user_331141 Inactive
    user_331141
    @JamieLockett

    Herbert E. Meyer: Are all of you really as pessimistic as you seem to be?

    We’re conservatives…

    • #38
  9. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Herbert E. Meyer: Are all of you really as pessimistic as you seem to be?

    Not pessimistic.  Cynical.  There is a difference.

    Persuasion is possible, but it is not something that can be achieved by a political candidate operating in a vacuum on the strength of his/her personal oratorical powers alone.

    Persuasion is achievable on an organizational and movement-level scale, through careful analysis of demographic and psychographic data, micro targeting of most-receptive groups and individuals, and massive amounts of grassroots/volunteer manpower all pulling in the same (or at least similar) direction.

    It is also achievable over a long-term period if conservatives are able to regain influence over education and media.

    A study of the history of the Reform Party / Canadian Alliance / Conservative Party of Canada would be illustrative.  It was a very, very long-term project. The Reform Party was founded in 1987, and didn’t form government as the Conservative Party until 2007.  It didn’t achieve government thanks to a charismatic leader. It achieved government through two decades of grinding away with feet on the ground knocking on doors in every single riding in the country.

    • #39
  10. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Tom Meyer, Ed.:

    “Republicans think every day is the Fourth of July.  Democrats think everyday is April 15th.”

    “If it moves, tax it.  If it keeps moving regulate it.  If it stops moving, subsidize it.”

    • #40
  11. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Republicans are also fighting the memory that the last two Republican presidents either directly broke promises or governed differently than they how they campaigned.

    Bush père famously broke the “read my lips, no new taxes” promise, and Bush fils campaigned on focusing on domestic policy and avoiding foreign entanglements.  Now, one forgives Bush fils due to his being thrust into history the way that he was, but still Republicans are fighting a recent history of saying one thing on the campaign and doing something different once in power.

    The last two Democratic presidents, on the other hand, pretty much governed the way they said they were going to govern (or at least have managed to promote the idea that they did).

    Of the two parties, which one is therefore more likely to elicit a statement like, “I don’t always agree with them, but at least they do what they say they’re going to do”?

    • #41
  12. J Flei Inactive
    J Flei
    @Solon

    Humor, aimed both at oneself and one’s opponents, seems to be a big missing factor these days.  I think if Republicans were funnier, people might listen to our arguments and also see how extreme the Democrats have gone (such as Harry Reid).

    I don’t think I’ve ever really persuaded anyone in relation to political issues. I have been persuaded, though.  Talk radio (mostly Prager) and Ricochet have convinced me to change my view on gun laws, climate change, and gender issues.  What did it for me was the strength of the intellectual points behind the arguments, as well as tone that made me feel like these are decent people.  I think those things – strong arguments from decent people – would work on anyone, there is no other magic formula.  Sprinkle in a little humor, though.

    • #42
  13. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    I think the crux of my attitude is that persuasion is an art no longer.  It is social science, based on advances in behavioural psychology, and it is data-driven, and it is also dependent on armies of boots on the ground.  The very idea that Republicans’ problem is “messaging” and/or a lack of a “persuasive” candidate at the top of the pyramid is a very old-fashioned and obsolete paradigm. It’s a holdover from the “Mad Men” era of advertising, when a “great idea” and a creative ad campaign was all that was needed to move units.  Today, it’s about data-driven integrated marketing strategies executed at various levels, from tv, to movie theatres, to social media, to low-paid attractive young shills standing on street corners, etc.

    The Obama campaign had computer and data-savvy workers.  It had social scientists with the latest research on how individuals actually make political/economic decisions.  It had idealistic and skilled volunteers all over the country beating the pavement in neighbourhoods that had never had campaign workers drop by before, ever.  It had big media.  It had Google.  It had the “pretty young things” tweeting and face booking and instagramming and posting videos, etc, etc, etc.  The Democratic project was about getting people who had never voted before to the polls on e-Day, by any means possible.

    Republicans, on the other hand, didn’t have nearly as many regional campaign offices, nearly as many volunteers, and nearly as many savvy wunderkinds.  The Republican project was about persuading the people who have voted in the past to vote Republican this time, and it communicated with those people in pretty much the same ways it always had, because that’s what worked in the past.

    IMHO.

    Also: “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” – Abraham Lincoln

    • #43
  14. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    J Flei: I don’t think I’ve ever really persuaded anyone in relation to political issues.

    I feel your pain.  I have managed to convince people that I’m persuasive, but I don’t actually persuade them.  “You’re very persuasive, but you’re wrong.”

    • #44
  15. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Herbert E. Meyer: George W. Bush, for example, genuinely wanted to convince people he was right about Iraq. But he had absolutely no talent for persuasion; nor, alas, did he have the sense to bring anyone who did have a talent for persuasion into his administration. After two terms in the White House, the total number of Americans who changed their minds in favor of the Iraq War was, roughly, zero.

    I was pleasantly surprised when Bush appointed Tony Snow as his spokesman.  Here was a guy who could actually compose a sentence.

    I made the cynical remark that Mr. Snow would probably get fired for being articulate.  Tragically, that isn’t how it turned out.

    • #45
  16. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Misthiocracy:I think the crux of my attitude is that persuasion is an art no longer. …

    …..Republicans, on the other hand, didn’t have nearly as many regional campaign offices, nearly as many volunteers, and nearly as many savvy wunderkinds. The Republican project was about persuading the people who have voted in the past to vote Republican this time, and it communicated with those people in pretty much the same ways it always had, because that’s what worked in the past.

    IMHO.

    Also:

    Technology changes all the time, but the fundamentals remain the same.  Successful businesses have a strong marketing effort and a strong sales effort.  Those functions are very different, but both are important.

    There’s an analog in the political world.  You have your marketing which consists of commercials, speeches, shrewd use of the news cycle, internet etc.  Then there’s the ground game which is analogous to sales.

    Obama had both.  His overarching message was that Mitt Romney was going to outsource your job and give your wife cancer.  And we all know about his ground game.  Obama’s first campaign had a more positive message.

    Clinton’s focus was on the economy.  Ours need to be that, fighting the terrorists and doing something about the IRS.

    An endless “Conservatism is good” campaign would be helpful too, if we could find someone to pay for it.

    And of course we need to make our ground game better than that of the Democrats.

    Without an overall marketing campaign, getting “our voters” to the polls will cease to work, because there will be too few of them.

    • #46
  17. gregprich@aol.com Inactive
    gregprich@aol.com
    @HankRearden
    The Dems have the MSM making their case every day. Libs think theirs is the ONLY case, the middle-of-the-road-reasonable-man case. But they couldn’t get away with that attitude if the MSM didn’t set the table for them every day. That means that a Repub must be an extraordinary polemicist.  Neither of the Bushes were.  Reagan was.  A Repub must “create a new (polemical) world.”  Exactly what Romney, for all his noble qualities, is unable to do.

    This piece says…

    Can you name even one of the likely presidential contenders

    who has displayed the inclination — let alone the skill — to convince people to

    actually change their minds about an issue? Neither can I.

    But I can.  Allen West.
    Allen West is the only politician out there today – and Ted Cruz is good – that can bring you to your feet.  He knows what he is talking about.  He knows the Scottish Enlightenment.  He knows the Founders.  He knows Hayek and Mises.  He knows Muhammed.  He is a warrior.  He isn’t afraid of anything.
    This piece has another implication.  To paraphrase Shakespeare…first fire all the consultants.  The consultants think it is important to have the right tax idea to talk about in front of the used car dealers of Scottsdale.  Somebody has to know those details, but a Repub has to make the big case, the case for freedom, has to, say, go to Ferguson..

    “I am glad be here to talk to all you future Republicans.  You are the next great group that is going to make it by skill, industry, foresight and saving just as soon as we can get the Dems off your back and get choice in and Dems out of your schools.”
    • #47
  18. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Breitbart once said that politics is downstream from culture, and some conservatives have used that as an excuse for giving up or moving to the left.

    Truth is that influence goes both ways.  During the Reagan years, conservatism became cool and was beginning to seep into the culture.  Hollywood is not as impenetrable as some people think.

    Our politician need to start looking, acting and thinking like winners.

    More Vince Lombardi and less David Frum, please.

    • #48
  19. gregprich@aol.com Inactive
    gregprich@aol.com
    @HankRearden

    BastiatJunior:

    Herbert E. Meyer: George W. Bush, for example, genuinely wanted to convince people he was right about Iraq. But he had absolutely no talent for persuasion; nor, alas, did he have the sense to bring anyone who did have a talent for persuasion into his administration. After two terms in the White House, the total number of Americans who changed their minds in favor of the Iraq War was, roughly, zero.

    I was pleasantly surprised when Bush appointed Tony Snow as his spokesman. Here was a guy who could actually compose a sentence.

    I made the cynical remark that Mr. Snow would probably get fired for being articulate. Tragically, that isn’t how it turned out.

    You are right.  Somebody who could talk!  Tony must have slipped through the cracks.  Ann Coulter has a very funny routine in one of her books about Scott McClellan looking for post-Bush employment, that is after his eclaircissement that there is partisanship in Washington.

    • #49
  20. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Hank Rearden:

    The Dems have the MSM making their case every day. Libs think theirs is the ONLY case, the middle-of-the-road-reasonable-man case. But they couldn’t get away with that attitude if the MSM didn’t set the table for them every day. That means that a Repub must be an extraordinary polemicist. Neither of the Bushes were. Reagan was. A Repub must “create a new (polemical) world.” Exactly what Romney, for all his noble qualities, is unable to do.

    This piece says…

    But I can. Allen West.

    Allen West is the only politician out there today – and Ted Cruz is good – that can bring you to your feet. He knows what he is talking about. He knows the Scottish Enlightenment. He knows the Founders. He knows Hayek and Mises. He knows Muhammed. He is a warrior. He isn’t afraid of anything.

    This piece has another implication. To paraphrase Shakespeare…first fire all the consultants. The consultants think it is important to have the right tax idea to talk about in front of the used car dealers of Scottsdale. Somebody has to know those details, but a Repub has to make the big case, the case for freedom, has to, say, go to Ferguson..

    “I am glad be here to talk to all you future Republicans. You are the next great group that is going to make it by skill, industry, foresight and saving just as soon as we can get the Dems off your back and get choice in and Dems out of your schools.”

    Nailed it, Hank!  Happy Warriors are what we need.  Consultants make money whether they win or lose.  That’s why there are there are so few Vince Lombardi’s among them.

    • #50
  21. rico Inactive
    rico
    @rico

    Herbert E. Meyer: Can you name even one of the likely presidential contenders who has displayed the inclination — let alone the skill — to convince people to actually change their minds about an issue?

    This guy:

    bobby_jindal-grin-150x150

    • #51
  22. user_8847 Member
    user_8847
    @FordPenney

    One ‘other’ issue needs to be addressed before you can even get to persuasion… having a difference between parties. The Republicans seem to be rudderless and don’t know what to ‘stand for’ which is why the Tea Party started. Then instead of addressing the foundational issues of these folks they attacked them, said they were out of touch, uneducated and didn’t understand how, everyone say it together, Washington works.

    So they look like less principled people than the Democrats and the Dems love this befuddled mess. Easy to shoot a target that’s standing still.

    There are good Republicans like Try Gowdy, but getting through the miasma of the Republican leadership, the guys who just don’t want to loose too badly, is nearly impossible and so the infighting is humorous in a Shakespearean tragedy sort of way.

    So before  discussing ‘persuasion’ maybe cleaning house and finding leadership should be at the top of the list. Or I’ll put that at the top of the ‘what do we need to do to persuade list’.

    Cynical, absolutely, the Republican brand of marketing is basically more of the same… and the voter says ‘same what?’ Not hard to figure out.

    BTW- the Fox network audience share should prove the people are out there, but the Republican leadership is snipe hunting and doesn’t even get the snipe hunting joke.

    • #52
  23. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    BastiatJunior: Trouble is, they only hear one side of the argument.

    Because the fanatics run the schools and the media.  The fanatics are not open to convincing (I’ve tried).

    Most people are not particularly reasonable.  Appealing to reason only works with a minority.

    • #53
  24. user_1030767 Inactive
    user_1030767
    @TheQuestion

    J Flei:

    I don’t think I’ve ever really persuaded anyone in relation to political issues. I have been persuaded, though. Talk radio (mostly Prager) and Ricochet have convinced me to change my view on gun laws, climate change, and gender issues.

    You know when you’ve been persuaded.  You probably rarely or ever know when you have persuaded someone else.  Most people don’t change their minds all at once, and when they do, they probably don’t announce it right away.  And probably the persuading was a group effect.  No single person persuaded me to become conservative.

    I’m doubling down on the point I made earlier.  Persuasion takes time, like planting a seed.  Except when planting a seed in a garden you’ll know whether you were successful in a few days or weeks.  With persuasion you’ll probably never know.

    I’m sure Dennis Prager doesn’t know 99% of the people he’s persuaded over the years, even though each one of them know that Prager persuaded them.  Persuasion takes patience and faith.

    • #54
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