How to Persuade

Politics is the art of persuasion. The goal is to persuade people to act on your behalf—to vote, to volunteer, to contribute.

Even though persuasion is central to political success, progressives rarely talk about how to do it better. That’s the point of this book. It suggests how candidates, lawmakers and allies can improve the way they talk about a wide range of issues, from the economy, healthcare and immigrants’ rights, to marriage equality, reproductive rights and gun violence. But no matter the issue, there are three basic principles that make any argument more persuasive.

First, always begin in agreement with your audience.

It is extremely rare, in the short term, to change anyone’s belief. Everyone has biases, stereotypes, and other preconceptions that they carry around in their heads. When a new “fact” doesn’t fit people’s preexisting beliefs, they are almost certain to reject the fact, not their preconceptions.

So to persuade, you have to find a point of agreement and work from there. You need to provide your audience with a bridge from their preconceptions to your solutions. The goal is not to change people’s minds, it is to show them that they agree with you already. The way to begin is by expressing empathy and shared values.

The most direct and essential method of connecting with voters is to empathize. Demonstrate that you understand their problems and concerns. Voters quite reasonably conclude that you can’t fix their problems if you can’t understand them.

Before you make your pitch, find out what voters think. If you’re walking door-to-door or talking to individuals one-on-one, ask them what the community needs to fix. If you’re speaking at a meeting, find out the audience’s concerns ahead of time. And obviously, if you’re paying for mass media, research public opinion first.

You never have to compromise your political principles to demonstrate empathy. Rather, you need to search for some element of the debate where you sincerely agree. For example:

  • If a voter complains about taxes (even in a conservative fashion), agree that our tax system is unfair.

  • If the voter worries about government budgets (even when there’s really no problem), agree that our government has an obligation to be careful with taxpayer money.

  • If the voter is concerned about crime (even in a very low-crime community), agree that personal safety must be a top priority for the government.

  • If the voter thinks the neighborhood is going downhill (even when that doesn’t seem to be the case), agree that we need to preserve the quality of life.

Start any political conversation this way, and then reinforce your empathy with shared values.

In politics, values are ideals that describe the kind of society we are trying to build. The stereotypical conservative values are small government, low taxes, free markets, strong military and traditional families. It is important to understand that these oversimplified conservative values are extremely popular, and too often progressives have no effective response.

Here’s how progressives can answer. When you’re talking about an issue where government has no proper role—like free speech, privacy, reproductive health 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.

Say . . .

r similar values:

Basic rights
Fundamental rights
Religious freedom

or similar values:

Equal opportunity
Justice; equal justice
Fairness; fair share
Level playing field
Every American

r similar values:

Safety; protection
Quality of life
Employment security
Retirement security
Health security

Why . . .

You can also put these values together and say you stand for “freedom, opportunity and security for all,” a progressive statement of values that polls very well. But more important, it’s an accurate and politically potent description of what we stand for. The right wing favors these principles for some—the affluent. Progressives insist on providing freedom, opportunity and security to each and every American. (For a more detailed discussion of freedom, opportunity and security, see How to Talk About Progressive Values.)

Empathy and values alone can win over persuadable voters. Let’s say you are a candidate for state legislature and you are asked what you’re going to do to clean up the stream that runs through that neighborhood. Let’s also say it’s not really the state legislature’s job; it’s the county or city that has jurisdiction over the stream.

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

Say . . .

I’m running for office because I want to fight for cleaner streams and safer parklands. I’m going to work 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 that vote. A persuadable voter is listening for one thing, really: Is this candidate on my side? You’ve already proven that you are.

Every time you have the opportunity to speak to a persuadable audience, don’t forget to express empathy and values. This is especially true when you are asked a question because that person is focused on what you are saying. Even if the listener disagrees with your policy solution, you might very well win his or her vote if you have made clear that you share the same concerns and are trying to achieve the same goals. Again, that’s what persuadable voters want to hear—that you are on their side.

Second, show your audience 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 persuadable voters 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. This may sometimes be 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 highlight the way it indirectly benefits the middle class. Persuadable voters are rarely in poverty themselves and they will relate better to an argument framed toward them.

For example, when arguing for Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, say something like:

Say . . .

It will benefit everyone. It will energize our local economy and create thousands of new jobs. It will save millions in taxpayer dollars that are currently spent treating uninsured people in emergency rooms. And it will help our own hard-working families and friends who are hurting in this economic downturn. 

Or when you argue for an increase in the minimum wage:

Say . . .

Raising the minimum wage puts money in the pockets of hard-working 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 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 examples above mention 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 did something wrong: they didn’t study in school, did drugs, got arrested, got pregnant, or something else. Voters who are not poor think, “I didn’t get government assistance,” (even when they did) “so why should they?” They think the poor need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

So you need to go out of your way to describe them as deserving. It is fairly simple to defend aid to children because they cannot reasonably take care of themselves. This is also true of some elderly and disabled Americans, and voters are generally sympathetic when they are the beneficiaries. But when program recipients are able-bodied adults, suggest that they are hard-working and/or supporting families. Bill Clinton’s steady repetition of “work hard and play by the rules” was designed to communicate that a program’s beneficiaries are deserving of assistance, and that phrase still works.

Third, speak their language, not ours.

Persuadable voters aren’t like partisan activists. They don’t pay much attention to politics, public policy or political news. They don’t understand political ideologies. They don’t care a lot who wins elections. In general, they’re the citizens who are least interested in politics. After all, with America’s highly polarized parties, anyone who pays attention has already taken a side.

In talking to these less-enlightened and less-interested fellow citizens, candidates and lawmakers tend to make three mistakes.

(1) Progressives often rely on facts instead of values to persuade. Advocates will pack a speech with alarming facts and figures like: “50 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. 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. A few well-placed facts will help illustrate why the progressive solution is essential. Too many facts and figures mean your argument will fall on deaf ears.

(2) Progressives often use insider language instead of plain English. Incumbents especially tend to speak the technical language of lobbying and passing legislation. Insiders carry on a never-ending conversation about bills from the past, measures under consideration and current law. You probably realize that 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 Akaka amendment. It’s a tough habit to break.

Insider jargon serves a useful purpose. It is shorthand—it allows those who understand the shorthand to communicate more efficiently. But it is also a way to be exclusive, to separate insiders 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.

(3) Progressives often use ideological language even though persuadables are the opposite of ideologues. You should not complain of corporate greed because Americans don’t have a problem with corporations. You should not say capitalism or any ism because most Americans don’t relate to ideology. And please 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 necessarily know what you know or believe what you believe. And yet, if you empathize with persuadable voters and use language they understand, you have the upper hand in any argument. Progressive policies benefit nearly all Americans, the 99 percent. Progressive values reflect the aspirations of the vast majority of our fellow citizens. You’re absolutely on the voters’ side. You simply need to sharpen your persuasion skills a bit so they will understand and believe that.

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