The Language of Persuasion

With election season upon us, Lee Hartley Carter, president of Maslansky + Partners, a language strategy firm, and the author of Persuasion: Convincing Others When Facts Don’t Seem to Matter (TarcherPerigee, 2019), offers insight into the way language persuades the unconvinced.

 

Americans of Muslim Faith

What Are Conservatives Actually Debating?

What the strange war over “David French-ism” says about the right.

In March the religious journal First Things published a short manifesto, signed by a group of notable conservative writers and academics, titled “Against the Dead Consensus.” The consensus that the manifesto came to bury belonged to conservatism as it existed between the time of William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of Donald Trump: An ideology that packaged limited government, free markets, a hawkish foreign policy and cultural conservatism together, and that assumed that business interests and religious conservatives and ambitious American-empire builders belonged naturally to the same coalition.

This consensus was never as stable as retrospective political storytelling might suggest; even successful Republican politicians inevitably left many of its factions sorely disappointed, while conservative intellectuals and activists feuded viciously with one another and constantly discerned crises and crackups for their movement. But the crisis revealed or created (depending on your perspective) by our own age of populism seems more severe, the stresses on the different factions more serious, and it is just possible that the longstanding conservative fusion might be as dead as the First Things signatories argued.

Among them was Sohrab Ahmari, the op-ed editor at The New York Post, whose public career embodies some of those shifts and stresses: An immigrant whose family fled the Islamic Republic of Iran, he began his career on the right as an ex-Marxist secular neoconservative at The Wall Street Journal editorial page and has since become a traditionally inclined Catholic (a journey detailed in his striking memoir, “From Fire, By Water”) and also more Trump-friendly and populist into the bargain.

In the last week Ahmari has roiled the conservative intellectual world with a critique of something he calls David French-ism, after David French of National Review, another prominent conservative writer. This controversy, like the debate over Tucker Carlson and capitalism earlier this year, has been a full-employment bill for conservative pundits. But it probably seems impossibly opaque from the outside, since superficially Ahmari and French belong to the same faction on the right — both religious conservatives, both strongly anti-abortion, both deeply engaged in battles over religious liberty (where French is a longtime litigator). Indeed it is somewhat opaque even from the inside, prompting conservatives engaging with the dispute to wonder, “What are we debating?”

I’m going to try to answer that question here. We’ll see how it goes.

Basically the best way to understand the Ahmari-French split is in light of the old fusion, the old consensus, that the First Things manifesto attacked. French is a religious conservative who thinks that the pre-Trump conservative vision still makes sense. He thinks that his Christian faith and his pro-life convictions have a natural home in a basically libertarian coalition, one that wants to limit the federal government’s interventions in the marketplace and expects civil society to flourish once state power is removed. He thinks that believers and nonbelievers, secular liberals and conservative Christians, can coexist under a classical-liberal framework in which disputes are settled by persuasion rather than constant legal skirmishing, or else are left unsettled in a healthy pluralism. He is one of the few remaining conservatives willing to argue that the invasion of Iraq was just and necessary. And he opposes, now as well as yesterday, the bargain that the right struck with Donald Trump.

Ahmari, on the other hand, speaks for cultural conservatives who believe that the old conservative fusion mostly failed their part of the movement — winning victories for tax cutters and business interests while marriage rates declined, birthrates plummeted and religious affiliation waned; and appeasing social conservatives with judges who never actually got around to overturning Roe v. Wade. These conservatives believe that the current version of social liberalism has no interest in truces or pluralism and won’t rest till the last evangelical baker is fined into bankruptcy, the last Catholic hospital or adoption agency is closed by an A.C.L.U. lawsuit. They think that business interests have turned into agents of cultural revolution, making them poor allies for the right, and that the free trade and globalization championed by past Republican presidents has played some role in the dissolution of conservatism’s substrates — the family, the neighborhood, the local civitas. And they have warmed, quickly or slowly, to the politics-is-war style of the current president.

But what, specifically, do these conservatives want, besides a sense of thrill-in-combat that French’s irenic style denies them? I don’t think they are completely certain themselves; in a useful contribution to the Ahmari affair, R.R. Reno, the editor of First Things, describes their animating spirit as a feeling that something else is needed in American society besides just classical-liberal, limited-government commitments, without any certainty about what that something ought to be.

Still, you can see three broad demands at work in their arguments. First, they want social conservatives to exercise more explicit power within the conservative coalition.

This may sound like a strange idea, since, after all, it is social conservatism’s growing political weakness, its cultural retreat, that led the religious right to throw in with a cruel sybarite like Trump. But there’s a plausible argument that even with its broader influence reduced, religious conservatism should still wield more power than it does in Republican politics — that it outsources too much policy thinking to other factions, that it goes along with legislation written for business interests so long as the promised judicial appointments are dangled at the end, and that it generally acts like a junior partner even though it delivers far more votes.

Most people are bad at arguing. These 2 techniques will make you better.

Anyone who has argued with an opinionated relative or friend about immigration or gun control knows it is often impossible to sway someone with strong views.

That’s in part because our brains work hard to ensure the integrity of our worldview: We seek out information to confirm what we already know, and are dismissive or avoidant of facts that are hostile to our core beliefs.

But it’s not impossible to make your argument stick. And there’s been some good scientific work on this. Here are two strategies that, based on the evidence, seem promising.

1) If the argument you find convincing doesn’t resonate with someone else, find out what does

The answer to polarization and political division is not simply exposing people to another point of view.

In 2017, researchers at Duke, NYU, and Princeton ran an experiment where they paid a large sample of Democratic and Republican Twitter users to read more opinions from the other side. “We found no evidence that inter-group contact on social media reduces political polarization,” the authors wrote. Republicans in the experiment actually grew more conservative over the course of the test. Liberals in the experiment grew very slightly more liberal.

Whenever we engage in political debates, we all tend to overrate the power of arguments we find personally convincing — and wrongly think the other side will be swayed.

On gun control, for instance, liberals are persuaded by stats like, “No other developed country in the world has nearly the same rate of gun violence as does America.” And they think other people will find this compelling, too.

Conservatives, meanwhile, often go to this formulation: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

What both sides fail to understand is that they’re arguing a point that their opponents have not only already dismissed but may be inherently deaf to.

“The messages that are intuitive to people are, for the most part, not the effective ones,” Robb Willer, a professor of sociology and psychology at Stanford University, told me in 2015.

Willer has shown it’s at least possible to nudge our political opponents to consider ideas they’d normally reject outright. In 2015, in a series of six studies, he and co-author Matthew Feinberg found that when conservative policies are framed around liberal values like equality or fairness, liberals become more accepting of them. The same was true of liberal policies recast in terms of conservative values like respect for authority.

Willer has shown it’s at least possible to nudge our political opponents to consider ideas they’d normally reject outright. In 2015, in a series of six studies, he and co-author Matthew Feinberg found that when conservative policies are framed around liberal values like equality or fairness, liberals become more accepting of them. The same was true of liberal policies recast in terms of conservative values like respect for authority.

So, his research suggests, if a conservative wanted to convince a liberal to support higher military spending, he shouldn’t appeal to patriotism. He should say something like, “Through the military, the disadvantaged can achieve equal standing and overcome the challenges of poverty and inequality.” Or at least that’s the general idea.

In a recent effort Willer and a co-author found, in a nationally representative sample, that conservatives would be more willing to support a hypothetical liberal candidate for president if that candidate used language that reflected conservative values. For instance, conservatives who read that the candidate’s “vision for America is based on respect for the values and traditions that were handed down to us…” were more likely to say they supported him than when the candidate’s message was framed with liberal buzzwords.

How to sway the other side: Use their morals against them

Willer’s work is based on moral foundations theory. It’s the idea that people have stable, gut-level morals that influence their worldview. The liberal moral foundations include equality, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable. Conservative moral foundations are more stalwart: They favor in-group loyalty, moral purity, and respect for authority.

Politicians intuitively use moral foundations to excite like-minded voters. Conservative politicians know phrases like “take our country back” get followers’ hearts beating.

What moral foundations theory tells us, however, is that these messages don’t translate from one moral tribe to the other. “You’re essentially trying to convince somebody who speaks French of some position while speaking German to them,” Willer says. “And that doesn’t resonate.”

Willer cautioned that it’s still extremely difficult to convert a political opponent completely to your side, even with these techniques. “We found statistically significant effects,” he says. “They’re reliable. But in terms of magnitude, they are not large.”

The chart below shows how well the moral reframing worked for each policy area in Willer’s study. To be clear, there’s only so much that reframing in terms of values can do: It can’t turn an anti-Obamacare conservative into a proponent, but it can soften his stance and get him to listen to counterarguments.