Who is the audience for this site (as well as the Cognitive Politics site and Winning Words)? Is it for progressives, or is it for progressives who need to learn how to communicate effectively with swing voters? I think it’s the latter, and I think we’re doing a bad job of helping those people out. We’ve just become another bunch of screechers – and there are plenty of those on other websites. Our goal should be to help progressive communicators get better at communicating progressive positions, in a whole variety of ways:
- Better ways to say things
- What you have to do in a campaign, e.g., to be effective (have a good website, for example, and what that entails)
- Understand the psychology of the swing voter (without talking down to or about them)
- Understand the techniques that are being used against you
Know your enemy and their weapons
In the Reacher books by Lee Child, Jack Reacher always wants to know what kind of weapon is being used against him, because he knows the weaknesses of each one, and then he uses tactics that take advantage of those weaknesses. We’re never going to be a Reacher in this fight, at least not for this election, but we need to do a better job than simply cower under our hands when the opposition brandishes a weapon.
What are we fighting against?
Some of the weapons they are using against us:
- Redefinition of terms (“liberal”, “entitlement”, “business-friendly,” etc.)
- Masterful positioning and framing (“taxes are bad,” “government is bad,” liberals “tax and spend”)
- Ad hominem attacks (that’s what birtherism is, for example)
- Name-calling (that’s the “elite” problem)
- Logical fallacies – especially things like the excluded middle
- Using public opinion as justifications for policies that contravene the opinion (Luntz piece in the WashPo)
- Appeals to emotional arguments (the Haidt dimensions)
- Use of “bad is stronger than good”
- Dependence on several key cognitive biases – the fundamental attribution error, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the one about facts that contradict a position making the position harder to abandon
- Using jujitsu and ridicule against our weaknesses – our penchant for being nice, for using logical arguments
- Using confusing rhetoric – e.g., the First Amendment’s establishment clause means we should be able to pray in schools
- Using tactics that make the media ineffective (the “left wing media” castigation has resulted in lots of false equivalence because the media are watching their behinds)
I’m sure there are several more that I’m just not thinking of right now.
What do we do about this?
Unfortunately, it’s much easier to make this list than it is to come up with tactics against those weapons. But here is a shot at some of them:
- Lies – we have to call them out as liars. This is an emotionally very compelling thing to do – no one likes a liar, and people who are betwixt and between will be swayed by the statement.
- Ridicule – another emotionally compelling thing to do – liberals have typically been too nice, and we should ridicule not just our opponents, but journalists who hew to a “false equivalency”. This is what Jon Stewart, Colbert, and Maher have all been doing, to arguably greater effect than e.g., Krugman, who uses logical arguments.
- Appeals to emotional arguments – the Haidt dimensions. The good news is that we can do this without lying.
- Use of “bad is stronger than good” – this is called “negative campaigning” and it’s what works. We need to step up to it, not step away from it. Of course, again, we have the advantage of not having to lie in order to be negative about our opponents – they really *do* want to break America, or at least their policies will lead to a broken America.
- Regarding the Fundamental Attribution Error, this is where the use of stories about “your neighbors,” “your daughter,” “your brother” are so important. The situations have to be shown to be impacting them, otherwise they are not considered situations but personality flaws. This is going to be one of the hardest ones to deal with for us, for two reasons: 1) It’s so obvious to us that taking care of all of us is the right thing to do (but it’s not clear to swing voters), and 2) this does make the arguments harder to articulate. The truth is more difficult than lies.
- Positioning and framing – this is more of a long-term effort. The RW message machine was not built in a day, and as the recent Reuters research showed, the current outcome of all that marketing is much different than it was even ten years ago.
- Defense against ad hominem attacks – there are two ways to go here, both should be used. One is to attack back. This is less desirable. Another is to ridicule these attacks as simply a last gasp of a dying effort, which might work if Obama is well ahead in the polls, for example. Otherwise, mostly it just has to be ignored. In particular, it seems counterproductive to rise to the bait, because that validates it. Another tactic is to get our liberal media friends to ridicule not the ad hominem claims, but the journalists on the right who repeat them, for their gullibility.