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This Is What Will Change Your Political Opponent’s Mind

February 24, 2017
by Krissy Eliot
People arguing

The latest trendy theory among progressives is that emotions, not facts, are most effective in convincing conservative Americans to change their minds for the good of the country.

In a Slate piece called “It’s Time to Give Up on Facts,” journalist Jess Zimmerman says emotional appeal is the only real way to persuade members of the right to seriously consider progressive’s ways of seeing things—that the left should keep facts safe in their arsenal, but they’re not weapons that will win the war. In the Atlantic, Olga Khazan explains how conservatives are more likely to support ideas that are “morally reframed” to fit their perspective, rather than change their own values based on factually-based arguments—and progressives should keep this in mind so as not to “make the conflict worse.” And in his seminal book Moral Politics, UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff says that progressives don’t often explicitly declare their moral values in the same manner as conservatives, thinking the facts will speak for themselves. But history shows that how you frame the debate is what reels them in.

Okay, yeah: Progressives could afford to improve their skills as political party pick-up artists. But word-sorcery isn’t going to be what ultimately bewitches Trump supporters, says Dr. Lawrence Rosenthal, executive director of the UC Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies.

They’ll be persuaded not by rational argument, he says, but by the harsh light of reality.

“I do think it’s very important to expose stuff so that lies that beget other lies are contained.”

“I think the transformation of emotion, anger, and perhaps voting, on the right, will be affected not by liberals talking sense or liberals appealing to human kindness, but by reality not coming through as [Trump supporters] expected it to,” Rosenthal says. “If they’re going to turn, it will be on account of events,” most likely not getting what they believe they were promised.  

“What’s going to happen when the jobs don’t come back that Trump has argued for? What happens if he does re-do trade deals?” Rosenthal says. “What happens when people on Obamacare get thrown off?”

Rosenthal says that die-hard Trump supporters have largely gravitated towards him because they want what they believe they’re owed, and the feeling of being let down is pervasive.

The Tea Party elected 65 people into the House of Representatives in 2010, Rosenthal explains, and continued to elect representatives during the Obama years with the idea that they could simply do away with Obamacare. When that didn’t happen, says Rosenthal, they felt betrayed and revolted against the Republican Party establishment—and they’re still clinging to this anger, throwing down some serious shade.

So ultimately, there’s not much liberals can do to change the minds of many Trump supporters right now, says Rosenthal, but facts and logic are still important for seducing centrists and progressives—and for setting up a cordon sanitaire so the lies don’t seep out from where truth should be flowing.

“I do think it’s very important to expose stuff so that lies that beget other lies are contained,” Rosenthal says. “So they don’t spread from…the alt-right-world into middle-of-the-road people.”

Also, even if facts are holstered temporarily and the proposed moral and emotional debate tactics are perfectly deployed by liberals, it doesn’t matter much if the other party never shows up to listen. 

“The liberal press, to its credit, has an ideal of objectivity; it may not succeed in it, but it exists,” Rosenthal says. “The right, and this includes Fox News, so firmly believe from watching the mainstream media, that it has a liberal bias, that the ideas or the ideals of objectivity have completely gone out the window on that side.”

“The right cares about its team,” says Rosenthal. And because Trump supporters may believe there’s little to no room for them at the progressive table, they’re mostly hanging with guys like Glenn Beck and Milo Yiannopoulos.

This past election cycle, Fox was the main news source for 40 percent of Trump voters, according to Pew Research, whereas Clinton voters had a much broader media diet, with no single news source being as dominant.

The liberal call to rely more on framing than facts to convince conservatives isn’t new, but the prevalence of the argument is at a level we’ve never seen before, Rosenthal says.

And the upsurge “has to do with how, from the liberal point of view, wildly distorted the right has become in how they see things,” Rosenthal says. “It has a special character in 2017.” 

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