January 31, 2017

Taking the Low Road

I've found myself on what I can most charitably call the unpopular side of most arguments about politics, lately. I like to tell myself it's because I'm being relentlessly reasonable, which may well be the title of my autobiography one day, but I expect to a certain degree that's self-rationalisation. Either way, the end result of that is that I usually come out saying "Trump isn't trying to create an authoritarian state," and "Trump voters aren't so bad," and you can no doubt understand why this is often the unpopular side of the argument when one runs, as I do, in social groups that tend towards the left of the political spectrum. Hell, I've been piled on so much the last few months I've begun to feel kind of gaslit myself by my liberal friends.

But look, we can disagree for the rest of time over whether the Trump presidency or his supporters are as bad as the worse predictions, so this time I won't ask you to come there with me. The thing is, though, successive Republican congresses and presidents have brought us closer and closer, each time, to the sort of political climate where Trump can get elected, and that matters, because like it or not half the electorate still voted for the increasingly conservative right. (Of course, Hillary got more votes than Trump, but Republican candidates for the house got more votes than Democratic ones, so I'm inclined to call it a draw.)

I say this not to defend or justify any specific Trump or Republican policy, but to point out that conservative policies, by and large, can't change and still be conservative, whereas any voter can in theory be persuaded to vote for the other side with the right tactics. You're welcome, of course, to dig your heels in and say that anyone who voted for Trump is an irredeemable asshole who could never be persuaded to do something as reasonable as voting for a left-wing candidate — but for my money, there's still more chance of changing a human mind than rewriting a political doctrine, so the former is where I choose to put my effort. And, to be clear, I choose to expend that effort not by, say, donating money to swing races so that increasingly left-wing candidates can attempt with greater amounts of increasingly left-wing campaign material to sway increasingly right-wing voters onto the right side of 50%, but by approaching the problem as, like I said, a human one rather than a political one.

This is around the time when people tell me I'm being naive, or normalising, or using the moral high ground as an excuse not to take real action. So let me be clear: I am not now nor more than very rarely taking the high ground about anything. (Read the rest of my blog; my wheelhouse is mainly dick jokes.) So when I say something like "the Trump presidency isn't so bad," or "Trump voters aren't so bad," or "let's give them a chance," it is purely, self-servingly, entirely because I want a left-wing candidate to win the next election. And I don't believe that will happen as long as the most vocal left-wing voters are the ones who think all Trump voters are idiots or Nazis or both.

That's because there is a large body of reliable and replicable social science research into the most effective (and ineffective) ways to persuade people to agree with your point of view, and though I should have thought some of these were self-evident, here's a quick list of the most widely accepted dos and don'ts:

Things that don't persuade peopleThings that do persuade people
Calling someone a Nazi/idiot/fascistGetting someone to make small-bordering-on-insignificant, incremental concessions to you (because each time someone takes your side, no matter how piddling the issue, they are more likely to take your side again in the future, and on bigger issues too).
Punching someone (*perhaps because you believe them to be a Nazi, perhaps not)Modifying someone's "choice architecture" to make them more likely to choose what you want (e.g. Not "Do you think the president should protect our borders from Muslim terrorists?" but "Do you think the president should violate the fourth amendment and the Immigration and Nationality Act?")
Telling someone that they are unequivocally wrong about everything they believe in.Telling someone that they clearly have valid reasons for holding their beliefs, thereby making them more likely to accept your compromise when you offer it. (*N.B. This might require the exercise of empathy to understand why someone would hold an opposing belief.)
Framing everything as nothing short of a cultural war in which there can only be one winner.Making some concessions. People are more likely to do you a favour when they feel indebted to you. (N.B. This obviously cuts both ways, given my first point about concessions. That's good. The more everyone in the country feels indebted to each other, the less likely they are to kill each other. Science!)

I also want to take a minute to be clear about my units of analysis here. I am not saying anybody needs to make concessions to Steve Bannon or empathise with Donald Trump (though I am saying you shouldn't punch anyone, Nazi or not). To the extent that this kind of conflation is reasonable, I see Bannon and Trump as equivalent with "right-wing doctrine," and therefore largely unchangeable. I'm also not saying that their opponents shouldn't consider all legal recourse to stop Bannon and Trump implementing their doctrine. But neither doctrine nor Bannon nor Trump is interchangeable with the people who voted that way, and those are the people whose can still be persuaded to vote for someone else. Those are also the people who won't be persuaded to vote for someone else if we repeatedly force them to publicly defend their views by calling them Nazis and idiots. When you get someone to state a belief out loud, they are less likely to give up on that belief in the future.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I know this approach is unpopular. People are afraid that taking this kind of "soft" approach, instead of militancy, will only give the right more opportunity to press their advantage and drive us towards a new fascist dictatorship. I don't disagree that, in the context of government, that's true. But in the context of voters — and I'm going to keep drawing this distinction — it's not true. Look at same-sex marriage: it went from 27% approval in Gallup polling in 1996 to 53% in 2011. And yes, there were militant aspects to that movement, of course there were. But it also did a lot of the things above: it made incremental steps (civil unions in some states, repeal of DOMA, Obergefell); it changed the choice architecture (not "should gays be allowed to marry" but "should people who love each other be treated equally regardless of gender"); it expressed an understanding of the opposing side's beliefs ("we know you're afraid that this will destroy the institution of marriage, but that's not what we're trying to do"); and, crucially, it largely didn't frame the issue as about defeating a group of bigots.

So let me say it again: this isn't about taking the high ground. It's not even, jokes aside, about being relentlessly reasonable, except insofar as I think — and so do most of the most militant lefties I know, about most things, in most other circumstances — that the most reasonable and rational course of action is usually the most effective one. And let me say this again, too: you'll never make right-wing ideology left-wing. By definition it's impossible. But it is possible to make right-wing ideology less popular, and if everyone could focus a little more on changing minds and a little less on winning the culture wars, we might be able to do just that. If you want to persuade me otherwise, just remember: I'm not a Nazi.

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