The right way to change someone's mind about politics

Recently, I was hanging out with an old friend of mine. We were at a park here in San Francisco.

The weather was perfect, and we were sprawled out on the grass—chatting about life. He’s moving back to the East Coast, and was thus in a quite pensive mood. The theme of our meandering conversation was “the future”.

As is exceedingly common these days, the topic shifted to politics.

Before I could blink an eye, he went on one of his heated anti-Trump diatribes.

I sat there and listened to him, but my mind wandered. I couldn’t help think about the current political polarization enveloping the country. I imagined, for a moment, what it would be like to be an extreme Trump supporter living in San Francisco. What would a hardcore Donald supporter do in that situation? Yell back? Stay quiet?

Almost 10% of San Francisco voted for Trump during the election, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone openly supporting him in the city. So I assume that the above situation occurs all the time, with Donald supporters staying silent and just growing ever more entrenched in their positions and angry at the aggressive, Democratic opposition.

From a psychological point of view, I can’t think of anything less effective than my friend’s tactic.

In fact, his behavior is a perfect recipe for further polarization.

That’s why I was pleased to find this article in The Atlantic from May 4th.

I want to point you to a couple of passages from the piece:

"When Abraham Lincoln was 33 years old, he gave a speech inside a Presbyterian church to a temperance society. His message: The assembled ought to be nicer to drinkers and sellers of alcohol, rather than shunning them, or denouncing them as moral pestilences. Indeed, they ought to use “kindly persuasion,” even if a man’s drunkenness had caused misery to his wife, or left his children hungry and naked with want.

For people are never less likely to change, to convert to new ways of thinking or acting, than when it means joining the ranks of their denouncers.

To expect otherwise, “to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation ... and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature,” Lincoln explained. “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause.”

However, Lincoln cautioned, dictate to a man’s judgment, command his action, or mark him to be despised, “and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart. And even though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.”

It was and remains extremely counterproductive for the left to treat Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” especially given how tiny a percentage of his followers would need to be converted away from the president to reorient political power in Washington, D.C. For directing me to a Lincoln speech I’d never read before, I thank Andrew Sullivan, who quoted it to support the argument that “you will not arrest the reactionary momentum by ignoring it or dismissing it entirely as a function of bigotry or stupidity. You’ll only defuse it by appreciating its insights and co-opting its appeal.” "

This passage floored me. Lincoln really understood human psychology.

As I’ve written about before, we’re tribal creatures. Our natural impulse is to bind together with people like us, and to be suspicious and aggressive towards those that are different. Any signal that you send to someone else that implies you’re different, or on an opposing team, will cause them to put up barriers and be distrustful.

If my friend wanted to persuade a Trump supporter over to his point of view, he would have been better off showing calmness and restraint and expressing caring concern for the president.

“You know, I really hope that Trump is alright. Some of his behavior recently has worried me. I’m really hoping that he’s able to do what’s best for the country, and am not sure that he’s in a good place. Really wish I could help.”

A statement like that would signal a shared identity with the silent Trump supporter while also opening the conversation in such a way where the shortcomings of the president could be highlighted.

A calm conversation about Trump’s mistakes, from a place of concern, could be an effective way of weakening the supporter’s belief in the candidate—opening them up for an attitude change.

But that’s not what usually happens. Both sides tend to yell and scream at each other... which makes it obvious who the enemy is, and whose thoughts should, therefore, be disregarded.

We’re riling each other up, putting each other in a defensive, fight-or-flight mode... and then wondering why politics is getting so divisive.

Okay, onto the next passage:

“A typical objection to calls to contest reactionary premises on the merits, and to persuade adherents of reaction, is that doing so somehow validates their ideas. “Among many liberals, there is an understandable impulse to raise the drawbridge, to deny certain ideas access to respectable conversation, to prevent certain concepts from being ‘normalized,’” Sullivan wrote, anticipating the objection. “But the normalization has already occurred — thanks, largely, to voters across the West — and willfully blinding ourselves to the most potent political movement of the moment will not make it go away. Our job in these circumstances is not to condescend but to engage — or forfeit the politics of the moment (and the future) to reaction.” ”

Dead on. The first step of winning someone over to your side, and building a peaceful coexistence, is by speaking the same language as them and signaling that you operate in the same reality. If we refuse to even acknowledge certain topics or use shared language, we’re ensuring tribal us-vs-them politics, and the ensuing polarization, will continue.

So the next time you're tempted to make a heated speech on some political topic, take a breath. Ask yourself: Am I preaching to my team? (In which case, continue). Or, am I talking to an audience with some potential members of the opposing side? If that's the case, change your message. Show them that you're actually on their side (because you are, you're both concerned American citizens).* Build upon your shared identity. Then work your persuasion magic. 

*One last note: We all have multiple identities. We're Republicans, Democrats, parents, teachers, Americans, beer lovers, rock music fans, etc. However, in political arguments, we tend to highlight our party affiliation (I'm a Hillary supporter! I'm a Trump supporter! etc.). This sets up an us-vs-them dynamic. Instead, point to one of the identities you share. In the case of Trump example I used earlier, I highlighted the "American citizen" identity that my friend and the silent Trump supporter shared. By expressing concern for the future of the country and the president, which is a genuine shared worry, my friend would have set up the conversation properly.

Jason Hreha