Politics 101: 5 essentials for changing minds

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.


  1. Yes…..you wold hope this would all come together and work, but the weirdness factor comes in somewhere along the way, so that the person who is speaking goobldiegop is cheered and applause grows like a mushroom cloud….all for no reason…..because I personally saw no common sens in their solutions, and their “values” were only in common at their most basic, “family”…

    I am not sure what people are or are not looking for anymore…but I am not sure it is values…although I wish it were, and having a clear pattern of consistency would be overwhelming.

  2. Great Article.

    Changing minds is a process. I think our instant microwave society wants to bang you on the head and change your mind.

    Good ideas presented poorly won’t make it.



  3. Superb.

    Saving Ashok from the vice of modesty, I cannot help but make the obvious point that amy of the most important points made here are also exemplified in his posts.

    As a testimony to this: I note that I am one of, what I would happily hazard are dozens of readers of this blog who would normally class themselves — with some qualifications — as “liberals” (in the American sense of the word) and who would doubtless be Democrat voters if we were U.S. Citizens.
    (e.g. I would have added my misty-eyed praise of the inauguration to the prevailing consensus, had I been around at the time.)

    However, one of the main reasons that I (and we) keep coming back to “Rethink” is that Ashok doesn’t just repeat partisan slogans at us in the hope that our minds will melt under the pressure of the repetition thus giving him an army of zombie slaves. Instead,
    he reconstructs his THOUGHTS, the power of
    which should be obvious, just as one
    cannot get anyone from A to B without showing
    them a ROAD.



  4. I find all of this to be utterly true, and also agree with Maladjusted. It’s funny to me that the reason I became a conservative was NOT through the political verve of today–listening to Hannity every morning, or something– but by listening to thoughtful men who raised interesting questions often having nothing to do with partisan affairs.

    Ashok is right to take notice of the danger in this; Jefferson doesn’t apply to everything. They did, however, cause me to think with more intensity about the Founding, among many other things.

    Conservatives need to remember that their message can resonate with a lot more people than they currently think. It is the self-inflicted isolation that keeps a lot of people at bay. Using ideas wisely, refraining from the loud repetition of annoying talking-points, and the veneer of amiable relations may well aid the movement.

  5. For some reason (for several reasons?) politics and religion are hot buttons for millions of people. When you open discussion about either, you have to be prepared for intensity and resistance and cognitive dissonance.

    People don’t like to be told their thinking/feeling is wrong or sometimes to even be questioned about what it all means because it arouses them to a state of anxiety. To quell anxiety, people tend to resist by shutting down, and this makes communication/persuasion difficult to impossible to proceed. I believe this feeling of discomfort helped Obama in his campaign for the presidency. He chose two phrases and stuck to them: Hope and change (meaningless in one sense yet open to any meaning for the individual–no questions raised here, nothing to protest against, nothing to protect oneself from from the voter’s point of view); the other phrase “Yes we can” also meaningless and yet open to individual interpretation (Yes we can do whatever the individual considers important to be done). You can’t counter “yes we can” except to say “no we can’t” and when you do this, you’ve lost. Does not matter that whatever you choose to believe you can do is right or wrong for the country, by taking the negative position you’ve put a block in front of the person and this is something to be protested, fought, erased. Voila Obama victory.

    Pity the Republicans didn’t claim “Hope and Change” and “Yes We Can first.” If that had happened the results of the election would have been very different. To the rational mind, this is a disgusting thought (not that a Republican victory would have been disgusting) because this tells us that anyone who captures the voters’ tendency not to think about what may cause discomfort can put forth any agenda and win.

  6. I think the point about enjoying thing is central as is the point about recognising that argument is often about ego. I remember a wise historian once saying to me that he was on a pilgrimage to some kind of historical truth, but hte point of his travelling was not to arrive but to journey. It may not be possible for any of us to attain ultimate truth about these subjects- but if we enjoy the search that means we are more likely to continue looking and also more likely to adopt an attitude to others which doesn’t look down on them but offers to them the opportunity of supplying what they know to our endeavours, as we supply what we know to theirs. I think you are entirely right to stress both happiness and modesty as key aids to getting others involved in politics on a personal level.

  7. Thanks for the advice. I will take it into consideration. You are right about having a conversation, rather than trying to change peoples’ minds. That is one of the first things I tell people about my political art. I am not trying to change your mind. I merely want you to think about your convictions and why you have them. I present a point of view with my art and blog(Libertarian/Objectivist)and I have bias. It is presented as an outlet for my opinion. I do not pretend to be a source of news or wisdom. It is up to the viewer/reader to reach their own conclusion. I used to try to discuss politics with people in person more than I do these days, but always found that someone’s emotions interfered with the endeavor. I gave up the day a 70 year old man turned red in the face while screaming”George Bush is a Fascist” in the break room at my last job. I’m no fan of Bush, but that kind of behavior accomplishes nothing.
    As a political artist, I think it vital that I do research and provide information to back up my point of view. That research often comes from reading opposing viewpoints. I can’t say I always enjoy other peoples’ opinions, but it gives me perspective into their thoughts. I strive to understand why someone has an opposing opinion, even if there is no chance I will agree. I can see the temptation to be cared for by the government, but I choose to fend for myself. I don’t like that people want to spread the wealth around, but they have a right to that wish.
    Unfortunately, I am not always eloquent, and people criticize my writing as uneducated. Alas, I am an artist, not a scholar. I make a great deal of effort to educate myself, and am confident in my perspective. As I said, I do a great deal of research. I have found that it helps to give resources when making points to strangers. All of my paintings, and many of my blog posts come with a bibliography for this reason.
    At the end of the day, these are our opinions, and we should respect each other for taking the time to voice them. One of the hardest things to do is stand up for yourself when you know you are in the minority. As a Constitutionally Conservative artist, I know of what I speak. Good luck to you all in your political endeavors.
    Ashok, as always, gives good advice.

  8. Excellent post Ashok, spot on! Being “fun” is something that cannot be overrated or over-looked. That has been a key to our success in Cheatham County, TN – we have fun & look like we’re having fun.

    Too many seem like they want to be the pundits on TV overtalking each other, getting louder & louder. Being the biggest windbag is not how to draw people. Get people to think with their minds as well as feel with their hearts, & we will win converts.

  9. I will agree to that Robin.

    I can say that if we learn to discuss with intelligence, less the current media of tearing down, it just may be Ashok that leads the way. HipHip Hooray…!

    I choose not to out scream those who disagree with me.

    This is far more fun, inviting, interesting.

    I hope everyone here will start sharing these posts…although I am sure you already are…right??

  10. Hmmm.

    11 comments so far and no Ashok to reignite this one. Obviously, he’s still on leave
    doing work. Pressing question: How can we entice him back before his intended time?

    My plan: preposterous claims imbedded in references he will find irresitable:

    Thus: “Ashok, you know how in BK I of Xenophon’s Memorobilia, Alcibiades tries
    out an eidolon of the elenchus on Pericles?
    Well, doesn’t that mean that Republicans are….bad…in…some…way? Maybe even LOTS of ways? Hmmm?”

    Sigh. Was that a tumbleweed I just saw roll past?


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