Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Talking to the other side

The video above from Vox, though highly problematic, is nevertheless useful as a lesson in how to talk to conservatives about issues that we on the centre-left care about and what their support on—or, at least, their lack of opposition. There’s nothing new in the advice, nor its proven utility, but in light of the recent activity in Washington, DC, it’s especially good to take heed.

Vox originally posted the video on YouTube about a month ago, but this weekend they shared it on their Facebook Page, which I follow. I shared it on the AmeriNZ Facebook Page, where I said:
In politics, most successful messaging is a form of framing, which means, in its simplest form, it's not merely about WHAT we say, it's about HOW we say it. So, to win over rational conservatives, we need to talk about the aspects that matter to them. That's partly what this video is about (though it could have gone into more specifics).

I personally experienced this in the fight for marriage equality. Our side talked about rights and fairness and justice, but once we started talking about the issue in conservative terms, like responsibility and commitment, that was when the shift happened and more conservative and centre-right folks started to support marriage equality. I personally did that, and so did the professionals running the various campaigns. Sure, we still talked about fairness and justice and the like, but only part of the time, not exclusively, and not usually when more conservative folks were the intended or probable recipients of the message.

I think we need to do the same thing about the environment. The phrase "climate change" has become so hyper-politicised and hyper-partisan that it's now almost meaningless, and totally useless for political debate. CLEARLY it's not working, so why don't we try something else? That's really all this is about.
The personal experience I was referring to is something I talked about in some detail a couple years ago in a post about the book Defining Marriage. I said:
Toward the end of the book, Matt [Baume] talks about the profound change in strategy in 2012, a change that led to victory in four out of four states in which marriage equality was on the ballot. Like most people, I wasn’t aware any of that was going on, though I did notice that the ads seemed much better in 2012.

However, sometime later I saw an article about how to talk about marriage equality. Instead of “rights”, it said, talk about commitment and responsibility. Instead of justice or equality, talk about freedom, and, most especially, talk about love. I took that advice to heart.

I’ve never mentioned this before, but when New Zealand had its own battle for marriage equality, I shifted my own rhetoric based on that advice. For example, a typical way I phrased it was, “the government should allow loving same-gender couples to make the same legal and public commitment to each other as opposite-gender couples”.

I still used the term “marriage equality”, since it was by then already well established in the public discourse, but I also started using “freedom to marry”. But I always talked about love, commitment, responsibility—all the things the radical right claimed we were incapable of, but that the people we needed to win over valued.
So in that instance, we could actually see the shift happen as we changed our language from what we wanted to hear to what they wanted to hear, the people we wanted to win over. There’s no reason not to do the same thing with other issues, too. I do that all the time.

This is not about mere spin, though it may look like that. Instead, there’s a more subtle thing going on, emphasising the aspects of an issue that the intended audience can relate to, words and phrases that resonate with that audience. For example, I often talk about liberty and freedom instead of rights because that particular aspect of what civil and human rights are about resonates with rational people on the right. If I want them to listen to what I have to say, why not speak to them on their terms, using the language they connect with?

The rightwing has tried this, too, with little success. The best example I can think of is one that affects me personally: Attempts to market their agenda to LGBT people.

The Right tried to sell their islamophobia to LGBT people (and Liberals generally) by asking us why we’d support the Democrats and their attempts at diplomacy when radical islamists what to kill LGBT people. Similarly, in while trying to legalise anti-LGBT discrimination, which they frame as “religious liberty” or the simpler “religious freedom”, they ask why we oppose them when Islamic countries often put LGBT people to death, and they’d never do that.

The reason the right’s attempts to sell their policies to us failed is that they were so obviously insincere. We’re well aware that they’re not really concerned about radical islamist terrorists killing LGBT people, like in Orlando, for example (at the time, remember, most of them refused to even acknowledge that it even WAS an attack on LGBT people). We also know that they’re being dishonest in pointing out that some Islamic countries execute LGBT people because all know damn well that given the chance many of them would back the USA doing the same.

So, any attempt to use the language of one’s opponent to win them over is doomed to fail if those words are insincere, or pandering, or condescending, or simply inauthentic. Instead, this is about using words that are true, relevant, sincere, and authentic to both sides. That’s why it worked in the marriage equality debate—we obviously really meant the words we used.

So, when talking with conservatives who oppose action to stop climate change, it makes far more sense to talk about the issues where we can have agreement—like the need for clean air and water, for example—and to do using words they identify with. Same for reducing use of fossil fuels: It doesn’t have to be about reducing greenhouse gasses, it can be about national security, energy independence, reducing terrorism, the huge potential for economic growth and technological innovation by embracing clean, renewable energy. ALL of those things are true and matter to conservatives, so why not talk about them?

I’m well aware that some on the Leftward side of Left utterly reject this whole idea, and would rather fail completely and remain ideologically pure than win some (or even all…) of what they want simply because they refuse to change how they talk about the issues. As I’ve long said, I’m a pragmatist and would rather win part of what I want now while I work on the rest than lose everything just so to be able claim some sort of quixotic ideological purity.

Speaking of ideology, this video could have spent a little more time talking about specifics about how to talk to conservatives, and maybe a little less with ideological point scoring, but it's still a good pointer to a way forward.

And, finally, there’s also this: What we’ve been doing clearly hasn’t won them over, and we don’t yet have enough support to act without them. It’s time to try something different.


rogerogreen said...

I think the corporatists on the environmental side have spoken about profit motive in renewable energy. Still, right after the speech on Thursday, it was REALLY difficult NOT to say, "But that man is LYING!!!"

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

I know—I often feel that. But it's also something I'm trying to avoid saying directly. I don't seriously think that it's even possible to win over his hardcore fans—they have a LOT of reasons for backing him, and truthfulness was never one of them. Instead, it's about trying to weaken his soft support, to give them a reason to think again about supporting Don, or maybe even to help nudge them toward opposition. I'm convinced that we can't do that by always harping on the negative, such as Don's many (glaring, obvious, and glaringly obvious) faults, even though sometimes we must point out the emperor has no clothes. A lot of the time, we need to give them reasons to come around, positive reasons, reasons that speak to them, and that's really what my point is.