Alright, I’m writing this, and then I’m off the computer for a while. I need to get a lot done.
A few of you who are actively involved in politics have asked me [Note: I have no idea why. I guess I sound good?] what you can do beyond the usual, i.e. envelope-stuffing, going door-to-door to talk about your candidate, asking for donations, etc. You’ve rightly noted that none of that matters if people have already made up their mind against your party’s “brand,” and that getting people involved in local matters involves getting rid of some stereotypes they have about national politics. You’ve also said that you want something you can do on an everyday level that doesn’t make people feel like they’re being pushed to do something, but rather convinces them and gets them to convince others.
My own thought, from watching people behave over the years and seeing that play out in a number of ways, including online, is that the art of talking to someone so as to keep them willingly engaged has been lost. We don’t want open minds that we persuade gently over time – we want automatons that nod in agreement and respond to quick and dirty marketing practices. Get the right “pitch,” people open their wallet and volunteer, and voila: politics is easy!
So this list is for those of us looking not just to practice politics, but practice it in a more satisfying way. You can’t really lose if you engage people the way outlined below. In fact, you might find yourself nominated for office because of the respect you’ll cultivate:
1. Minds don’t change because you say the same thing over and over again loudly, and certainly don’t change because you think you win some arguments.
This sounds utterly counterintuitive, given how much stock we place in “winning” arguments and that idiotic notion of speech/essay writing you get from high school (say X in the beginning, say X again in the middle, say X yet again at the end). The reason why we feel hurt when we “lose” an argument is that our pride was injured, not because we were doing anything that might actually involve rationality. And those of you who’ve read any of my commentaries on anything know that any author or filmmaker or musician or artist worth his salt makes every element count for something distinct, that unity is never forced.
The best way to approach observation 1 is to ask yourself this: How do you feel being bullied or being constantly whined to?
2. “Facts” matter less than “values,” and the most important thing about “values” is that people see where you come from and you see where they come from.
It is a point of contention in my field whether there is such a thing as a “fact/value” distinction, but it is useful for lists like these. You can quote all the articles you want about how the free market produces wealth, but if someone believes they aren’t getting their fair share, and only government action will get them what is just, then your argument is sunk.
Conservatives consistently fail online to tell their story, complete with their own mistakes and failings, and tell it well. That lack of personality is devastating for a movement trying to get organized: no one is going to listen to a disembodied voice no matter how correct it may be when they can listen to themselves speak.
I’ve said “sharing” matters: if you can get someone to open up about their experiences to you, that goes an exceptionally long way. People love to be heard: one reason why they get nutty is that acting like a nutcase means you can get a clique that accepts your quirks far more easily.
3. Authority ultimately resides in knowledge – at the very least, you need to seem knowledgeable.
Too often I see people go about this the wrong way, trying to get something they sort of read or listened to looked at by more, so it makes them seem more concerned with history or policy or whatnot.
The way you display knowledge properly is by using it in appropriate circumstances. You don’t just declare “wow, everyone should read Jefferson now” and then start quoting Jefferson over the phone when asked about lunch, sending speeches via e-mail to your coworkers, telling your girlfriend all about Monticello when she asks about what movie you’d like to go to.
A really good way to see if you’re learning a little bit every day and using it correctly is to look at the questions you ask of others. If you don’t ask anything or ask things that put people on the spot, you’re probably an idiot or a bully. If you have asked a few things and people were really gracious and open in responding, then you’re implicitly using knowledge a better way: it actually takes a lot of knowledge to ask good questions.
4. Making people happy – creating a “hey, this is kinda fun” type atmosphere – goes a long, long way.
Aristotle says that education must involve pain. The thing is that adulthood is all about accepting some pain for a greater benefit: we get used to the pain. We get used to working with others who are pained. We learn and we find something satisfying and maybe even something that heals.
I suspect that one thing conservatives miss when talking about President Obama is how happy his campaign made some people feel. Conservatives tend to deride this, but think about it this way: do you want to feel dour and like everything is going to hell all the time? Tone matters – perhaps an immediate relief from pain can’t be promised, but nothing makes people happier than hearing “hey, we’re in this together.”
5. Your best arguments have already been made: you don’t need to be the one talking all the time.
Thoughtful, interesting coverage and analysis exists on nearly any issue from any political viewpoint you can conceive. Just go to http://www.aldaily.com and look at the sidebar – for conservatives and libertarians, there’s National Review, First Things, The New Criterion, The Weekly Standard, Reason and a million more publications sitting around, neglected by many.
The key is to get people reading that stuff as you’re going about your business, because that’s not only fewer discussions you have to make, but there’s a “multiplier effect:” people take the info they glean from there and spread it around. It seems strange to suggest that a political activist should be a magazine salesman, but consider that investment in a candidate is short-term. If you lose the election, all that money goes away with the loss, and all the campaigning dissolves in the public mind. It is true that a base is formed that can be activated again when the next election comes, but the opportunity to grow the base is gone until the next election.
Ideas have a life of their own if they’re not drowned out. It makes a lot of sense for a political activist to be more forward with ideas than they are now. After all, for all the “get involved” talk of the party, all that matters is what happens at the voting booth, and who ran in the first place. Both of those events are less contingent on a “ground strategy” than what people think and how motivated they are in the first place. The best political organization in a free society is the least active.