Policy focus, person focus: A key to that elusive Democratic unity?

Main idea:  Using an observation that Clinton supporters’ thinking tends to focus primarily on personal attributes of the candidates and that Sanders supporters’ thinking tends to focus primarily on policy issues, I conclude that they could work better with each other by taking that into account as they talk to each other.

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Empathy is, among other things, the ability to see the world—at least momentarily—from the perspective of another without judging that perspective to be ‘bad’ or ‘flawed.’

When you agree with someone, it’s easy to see what they see and withhold negativity.  But when we disagree, empathy takes effort and practice.

In this presidential election year, I get twenty opportunities every day to both practice and observe empathy. My friends include both Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters, and—you may have noticed—tensions are high between them just now.

Disclosure: I voted for Sanders. But for several reasons, I didn’t think that working for him in Wisconsin would be the most effective use of my energies. I was right; he won the primary here without my help. So as far as the presidential race goes, I’ve been in observation mode pretty much all along.

My conclusions: Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters share almost all the same foundational civic values—freedom, justice, a nation that pulls together and works cooperatively to achieve equal opportunity and shared prosperity for all.

But they have come to support different candidates because of where they look to find evidence of those values in the candidates.

My sister and brother-in-law provide a clear illustration. He supports Sanders, she Clinton. I asked them at lunch the other day to give me three reasons why they initially decided to support their candidate.

Their answers won’t surprise you.  As you read their answers below, appreciate and accept the fact that each is sincere: These truly are the factors that were decisive for them. Notice they both have their facts straight.  Notice the absence of conflict in their core values. But notice that they look at different things to find those values in the candidates.

My brother-in-law said he was drawn to Sanders by: 1) Regulation of the financial industry. He believes that Wall Street is causing most of the biggest problems hurting Americans right now, and believes that we need to regulate their conduct more effectively. Sander’s positions on Wall Street regulation precisely agree with his own. 2) Use of America’s military force. He believes America’s foreign policy has been too reliant for too long on military power, and that creates more terrorists than it stops, costs us too much money, and is immoral. He likes Sanders’ positions on military policy. 3) College expenses. Sanders won him over with his early, clear, and strong focus on higher-education debt as a significant factor limiting opportunity for an entire generation of Americans, and his bold proposals to address it.

My sister-in-law said she was drawn to Clinton by: 1) Her experience. She has worked in many jobs, at very high levels, for a very long time. That amount of experience gives Clinton the most impressive resume of any presidential candidate ever. 2) Her ability to weather storms of criticism. She has endured years of the most vitriolic and relentless criticism that any public figure has ever had to endure—some of which could have sent her to prison had her accusers prevailed—and she just kept going. Didn’t crumble. Didn’t surrender. 3) Her gender. Having a woman in the White House will be of benefit to the entire nation because it will provide undeniable proof that women can do anything.  That will help millions of American women achieve their individual potentials, and that will help the entire nation.

Do you see what I see?  The Sanders voter looks at policy positions for evidence of a candidate’s value. The Clinton voter looks at personal attributes.

For months, I’ve been analyzing the posts that roll by on my Facebook feed. There have been hundreds, because my Facebook friends are very civic-minded.  Nearly every pro-Sanders/anti-Clinton comment has a policy focus. Nearly every pro-Clinton/anti-Sanders  comment has a person focus.

Most of the exceptions come when they are heavy into debate mode, grabbing any argument that might stick. And yes, of course, Sanders supporters express sincere concerns about Clinton’s personal attributes, and Clinton supporters express sincere concerns about Sanders’ policy proposals. But those weren’t the reasons they chose to support their candidate in the first place. People didn’t decide to support Clinton because of Sanders’ personal flaws, and they didn’t decide to support Sanders because of Clinton’s policy record.

What breaks my heart is when I see attempts at reaching across the divide that fail because the participants neither perceive nor address other perspective.

For example, one exchange I’ve encountered several times is when a Sanders supporter asks something like “Please, Clinton supporter, tell me how she’d make a good president. If you can do that, I’ll be willing to do this ‘unity’ thing. Make your case.”

Nine times out of ten, the Clinton supporter responds with a string of ‘person’ arguments, perhaps along the lines of:  “Clinton’s experience with weathering horrible personal attacks makes her  more likely to win in November, despite what the polls now say.  The Republicans will call Sanders a “Socialist,” and voters don’t like socialists…” and so forth.

The Sanders supporter then claims he or she hasn’t heard a single argument in favor of Clinton, which makes the Clinton supporter perceive the Sanders supporter as pig-headed. But the Sanders supporter truly did not hear any relevant arguments—because those ‘person’ arguments are not important or persuasive to a voter who focuses primarily on policy.

I haven’t got a solution—just a suggestion that we all try to be as non-judgmentally alert as we can to each other’s values and perspectives. That won’t be wasted effort. As I’ve written in this blog before, I don’t think any of us ever changes another’s mind anyway—at least not directly and immediately, and particularly not in a single conversation.

Changes of minds happen in the shower, or when chopping vegetables, when we are alone with our thoughts, reviewing the conversations we’ve had or the new information that has come our way.

In any single conversation, if we do no more than successfully connect with each other—that is, if we come to understand the other’s point of view and succeed in expressing our own in a way that can be understood by the other–we will have given each other the raw materials that enable us to reach consensus over time.

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Useful links

For the past two years, my efforts in election administration have overtaken my efforts in interpersonal political communication, in much the same way that my efforts to put out a fire on the stove would likely overtake my efforts to put out the appetizers, were I given that choice just before my dinner guests arrive.

As soon as the kitchen is safe again, I will get back to putting the food on the table. Meantime, I still run into good references and resources, and people still recommend them to me. I’ll collect them in this blog post until I can get back to this talking-politics gig in a concerted way.

My basic, original list is here. And check these out, too:

The Secret to Making Conservatives Care About Climate Change: Research says environmentalists (everyone) should frame their arguments in ways that will appeal to other people’s values.

Taking the War out of our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, by Sharon Strand Ellison



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Let’s you and me argue. You be the kook. (Part 2)

Main point: If your conversation partner insists on refuting an argument you are not making, consider the possibility that he or she agrees with your arguments but is not yet emotionally ready to accept the conclusion.  If that is what is going on, your conversation partner is subconsciously panicking and will not likely be able to engage in rational discussion on that issue. Back off, and come back to the topic later.

Two years ago, I mused about the strange phenomenon of people who engage in debates by asserting their conversation partners believe some ridiculous idea they actually do not. (Let’s you and me argue. You be the kook.) At that time, I could not figure it out. TinFoilHat

A debate last night might have given me a clue.

I didn’t play an active part in the discussion among five friends who belong to the Democratic Party. I don’t, so I mostly just listened. All five support Sanders for the party’s presidential nomination.The question that started their debate: “Will you vote for Clinton if she gets the nomination?”

Among the five, only one will vote for the Democratic nominee no matter who it is—I’ll call him Roy. He quickly began to argue against the proposition that “Both parties are exactly the same.” Yet none of the others had said that. In fact, I didn’t notice him respond directly to anything his friends actually said. He was completely wrapped up in his debate with the phantom advocate for the idea that both parties are exactly the same.

After Roy had started several sentences with “When you say that both parties are exactly the same…” two of his friends explicitly denied they believed that. It didn’t make a dent in Roy’s illusion–he kept ignoring his friends in favor of the imaginary kook.

As I listened, I tried to tune into Roy’s emotions, his logic, and his illogic. Here’s what came to me:

Roy had heard his friends correctly when they said they would desert the Democratic Party if Clinton is nominated. And appearances aside, he also heard them correctly when they expressed their objections to Clinton’s foreign policy record; her close ties to Wall Street financiers; her support for warrantless surveillance of US citizens; and her long record of support for job-killing international trade agreements.

Roy desperately wants his friends to support Clinton if she is their party’s nominee, so he felt compelled to say something. At the same time, he couldn’t refute the arguments they they were actually making. In fact, he likely agreed with them.

That, I believe, is why his subconscious came to his emotional rescue and created an imaginary kook against whom he could make effective arguments. Debating the kook would satisfy his strong desire to stand up for his beliefs, while freeing him from having to engage with the points his friends were actually making.

I don’t think he was aware of this. My guess is that if he’d been pressed harder, he would have claimed that “Both parties are exactly the same” was the unavoidable conclusion (or underlying assumption, or something) of what his friends were saying. The subconscious is a powerful thing.

Going back to my post from two years ago, I’m thinking my Facebook friend might have been having the same sort of problem. She might very well have agreed with the point I was actually making—that consumers must continuously be on guard because pharmaceutical giants have so much influence over federal drug regulators. She desperately wanted vaccinations to be safe, but couldn’t argue with my point about lax regulation. So her subconscious conjured up an anti-vaccination kook, and she argued with that phantom instead of responding to me.

The next time this particular short-circuit derails a political conversation I had expected to be reasonable, I’m going to look for signs that my conversation partner actually does agree with my arguments but for some reason feels compelled not to concede the conclusion.

Which brings us to the question of what to do about it. My guess: the key is to find a way to calm the panic, even if it means changing the subject. When your conversation partner has already lost control of his or her reason, and is already ignoring everything you say, you’re going to have to save the persuasion for later anyway.

My Democratic friends might have had some success simply changing the subject with a remark like, “Well, the obvious conclusion is that we all need to work as hard as we can to get Sanders nominated.” No one in the room needed to decide that night what he or she would do if Clinton gets the nomination. They could have let Roy off the hook until he calmed down a little.

And I might have been able to save my relationship with my Facebook friend had I simply posted a comment along the lines of “Glad to see we’re both in agreement on the need for vaccinations. Let’s talk later about the best way to make people feel good about getting them.” Had I realized her weird conversational behavior was caused by panic, and that her panic was caused by her awareness that what I was saying was true, it would have been easier for me to step back and let her gather her wits.

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The 4 Main Things to know about political conversation

Last month, I was invited by a local civic group to lead a small workshop on political conversation. The organizers suggested that I and the other presenter each open with a five-minute introduction to the topic and then let the discussion flow. Five minutes isn’t a lot, but when the topic of a presentation is conversation itself, it’s a good idea to minimize the lecturing. So, I needed to come up with a quick overview of the few main things to know about political conversation.  I narrowed them down to these four.

  1. As long as we avoid talking politics or do it in a way that turns people off to civic involvement, our friends’ and neighbors’ political beliefs will continue to be shaped entirely by the wealthy few who finance paid political speech.

Political speech shapes our nation’s political culture, defines our civic values and agenda, and controls the very reality our fellow citizens perceive. And right now, the only political speech most of our fellow citizens hear is paid speech–political ads and ‘news’ shows designed not to inform but to increase ratings. Because you and I do not have billions of dollars to buy our democracy back, we must re-establish the social practice of constructive political conversation and re-learn the skills of civic discourse. Convincing even one of our apolitical neighbors to support public schools is worth 100 letters to a legislator funded by for-profit companies seeking to redirect tax dollars from the public schools to their own pockets.PoliticalConversation

  1. We need to converse with only the 75-80% of our fellow citizens who have the ability to embrace democracy and self-government. Attending to the sociopaths and hard-wired authoritarians is wasteful and counterproductive.

If you could wire each of your fellow citizens’ heads with electrodes, you would see that about 4% are neurological sociopaths with no capacity to do anything that is not in their personal self-interest. Between 20-25% are neurological authoritarians who actually prefer a world controlled by a strong central power, whether government or corporate elite, in which everyone else just obeys. Neither sociopaths nor authoritarians are capable of participating in self-government for the common good.

We waste our time and energy when we try to change their hard-wired values.  In addition, when we think of ourselves as the ‘other side’ in opposition to extremists, we risk caricaturing our own values and beliefs and in doing so, degrade our ability to awaken shared values and beliefs in our persuadable-but-apolitical fellow citizens. If you must see the world as having two and only two sides, don’t think of them as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ Think of them as ‘the people of good will’ and ‘those who aren’t worth engaging in conversation.’

  1. Interpersonal political conversation requires messages to flow in two directions. Both participants need to provide and to receive meaning. Therefore, conversations must proceed with mutual respect and trust, and speakers must listen to understand the other.

Communication is achieved only when ideas, facts, and concepts enter the participants’ minds, not just their ears. Human beings open their minds only to sources they like or trust—in conversation, that is people who care enough to listen to them. Speakers can tailor effective messages only when they understand—not assume, not imagine—the listener’s values, concerns, interests, assumptions, and beliefs. This understanding can be achieved only through active listening.

  1. Adults accept new information and ideas only as they fit with their existing beliefs and values. We reflexively reject ideas that challenge our world view. We alter our beliefs about how the world works only when we are motivated to make those beliefs consistent with deeply held, foundational values.

When new information or ideas conflict with strong beliefs or values, humans reject the new information to protect the belief/value. Therefore, we cannot change anyone’s mind with facts alone; we first must activate strong beliefs or values consistent with those facts. Otherwise, the listener will resist accepting the information—by not believing it, finding flaws with it, or rationalizing it away as irrelevant or insignificant.

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Open Mic Night in Middleton: Speaking Our Values

OpenMicNight-SmallI’ll be giving my first public presentation about talking politics on Thursday night, March 19. The Middleton Area Action Team invited me and another political-speech advocate, Eric Finch, to speak and lead a discussion at their monthly Open Mic night. If you’re in the area, please stop by—6:00 PM at the Craftsman Table & Tap, 6712 Frank Lloyd Wright Ave in Middleton.

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Jeff Smith: The common ground is always there.

Main points: Jeff Smith has more experience talking politics than most of us ever will. He believes that our neighborhood political conversations are better focus groups than those manufactured by political consultants, and that in our own informal focus groups we can learn why our neighbors believe what they believe and—yes—counteract misinformation. His advice for productive political conversation: Establish trust by listening to find the common ground.

I caJeffSmithRoadsiden count on one hand the times I’ve walked away from an opportunity for political conversation. B­­ut I’ve got nothing on Jeff Smith. As much as I enjoy talking politics, it had never occurred to me to stand by the side of the road with a sign saying “Stop and talk.”

I’m always on the lookout for people with real-world experience in political conversation, so when I saw a photo of Jeff with his roadside conversation station, I knew I had to interview this man. True, he was doing something most of us will never do—running to keep his seat in the state legislature—but he was sure to have earned some insights useful to non-candidates who want to develop their political conversation skills.

We met over lunch in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, his home town. After losing his seat to redistricting, he is now running for chair of the state’s Democratic Party.

My first question was obvious: Is it so hard to start political conversations that even candidates have to put up a sign by the roadside?

Yes, it is. Forced to run in an area where voters didn’t know him well, Smith wanted to talk to as many voters as he could. Going door-to-door found only about one in five voters home, and fewer than half of those were willing to talk. As he walked through the silent neighborhoods, he could hear the traffic on nearby highways. So he painted his sign, parked by the road, and waited.

It worked better than going door to door, but still “about half the time, I was on my own,” Smith recalled. And although he is a Democrat, about 75% of the people who stopped to talk were conservatives.

Once the conversation gets started, however, Smith found he could talk to anyone—even the few who were itching for a fight.

“You could see them all tensed up as they approached. But if you let them talk, sooner or later you would hear something to the effect of, “I’m concerned about my school.”

And that was the opening Smith, with his experience as a parent and an education advocate, could use. He could then connect: “Well, I am, too. What are we going to do about that?”

“The common ground is always there,” Smith said. “That’s what you wait for. If you let them talk and you listen enough, you will always hear it.” Once the conversation finds that common ground, he said, “then you’ve got a foundation of trust. That allows the communication to get going.”

Smith takes exception to the common assumption that “if you’re listening and having a two-way conversation, you’re weak, you lack passion, you’re not really committed.”

It’s just the opposite, he explained. “When you tell people just what you want them to hear, it never works. When you get in someone’s face, you can expect them to dig in their heels. You might walk away satisfied that you have been heard, but you haven’t really accomplished anything.”

Smith has used the power of listening to counter misinformation, even to turn enemies into allies. For example, while in the state legislature, Smith sponsored a bill addressing the problem of puppy mills—inhumane, for-profit dog-breeding operations. The leadership of an otherwise reputable kennel club had been spreading misinformation about Smith’s proposed legislation.

The members of the club organized a lobby day at the Capitol and confronted Smith with “about 30 people ready to read me the riot act.” The president of the kennel club read a long statement, “a diatribe about how awful the bill was, how reputable breeders would be raided and have their dogs confiscated—that sort of thing.” Smith remained quiet to “let them let it out.” When the group felt they had been heard, they were ready to listen. Smith then asked, “How many of you sell more than 50 dogs a year from more than three litters?” Not a hand in the room went up.

“Well, then, this bill won’t affect you. “ Conversation began, and the group ended up supporting the bill.

He recognizes it’s an uphill struggle. “There’s so much anger, so much fear. The stuff they see on television, hear on talk radio, get in their mailbox—it’s all designed to cast fear,” Smith continued, recalling one woman who greeted him with “You Democrats are all corrupt.”

“It was almost as if she didn’t realize she was talking about me to my face,” he marveled. “But if we don’t understand where that comes from, we’re never going to be able to make it go away.”

Smith’s response gently highlighted the specific and personal nature of her comment: “I asked, ‘Why do you think I am corrupt? As far as I can see, we have to have talked to each other before you can say I’ve lied to you.’”

That sort of honest but calm and respectful conversation is key to helping your conversation partner realize he or she is talking to “a person just like me, not a caricature.”

“People have reasons for believing the things they believe,” Smith continued. “You need to listen until you understand what those reasons are. You need to hear. That’s what people really want—to be heard.”

Smith is disappointed when he hears any of his fellow progressives dismissing Republican voters as “voting against their best interests,” before they’ve listened to them in one-on-one conversation. “You need to hear from them what their best interests are,” he explained. By the same token, “They cannot listen to Fox News to tell them who I am.”

Focus groups—a market-research technique in which a group of people are asked about their perceptions, opinions, and beliefs, and then discuss them with other group members–are widely accepted as a technique for understanding voters’ minds. Smith, however, is wary of the focus groups run by political consultants, which he characterized as “manufactured groups with manufactured diversity that produce manufactured results.” He’ll consider their findings, but won’t take them as gospel.

He strongly encourages politically engaged citizens to use their own social gatherings as naturally forming, real-life focus groups. I was reminded of the annual Christmas-tree bonfire my husband and I host for our neighborhood. I told him of last year’s bonfire, in which the question of gas prices came up. As one neighbor to expressed support for the XL pipeline, his remarks about “American oil companies” gave his neighbors the opportunity to point out something he hadn’t yet considered–that the Canadian oil will be sold on the global market by global corporations that have no national loyalty, with no advantage for the American consumer or benefit to the American taxpayer.

That’s the sort of community connection Smith thinks can make a difference. “We’ve got to remember that we’re working for the good of the whole community. All this political stuff we do–it’s about belonging to the same community, bring ourselves back to our shared humanity, our shared challenges.”

And if you’re dealing with someone who knows your political beliefs and doesn’t agree with them, the conversation doesn’t even have to be about politics and can still help to build the bridges needed to heal our civic divisions.

Smith had recently run into an old acquaintance at a social gathering, who hasn’t talked to him since Smith entered politics. Smith explained, “I could tell he is one of those who assume that since we’re on different teams now, we need to be mad at each other.”

So when his old friend gave him nothing more than a grunt in response to a warm greeting, Smith ignored the signal and instead started “a nice little conversation—some old memories, the Packers, whatever. That’s all I needed to do.”

“It worked. Pretty soon, we were chatting like the old friends we are. Next time, he’ll talk to me.”

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The best and the worst of political conversation–in one chat

If I continue my chatter about political conversation for the next ten years,  I don’t think I will be able to make a more convincing case than  this exchange for the benefits of maintaining a solid sense of  your own values when provoked by an angry, abusive conversation partner.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this month, an Internet troll tweeted: “In honor of MLK day today, I’m taking a vow to use the word “nigger” as many times as possible and in the most inappropriate times.”

Ignoring the usually wise advice to avoid feeding the trolls, Ijeoma Oluo responded with a quote from Dr. King: “Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”

The troll, Mrscrotum21, replied predictably: “Oh, so you’re one of those nigger lovers, too?”

Eighteen tweets later, Mrscrotum had used every common technique to try to get a rise out of Oluo, and Oluo had responded with nothing but appropriate MLK quotes. Oluo then wrote: “I wish you peace and love and freedom from the hatred that hurts your heart.”

Mrscrotum21 broke his string of abusive, offensive tweets. “Who is that a quote from?” he asked.

“That’s me, sending love and hope to you,” Oluo responded.

Of course, Mrscrotum21 wasn’t done trying to find ways to provoke or insult Oluo. “I have plenty of that,” he wrote.

Read through  the rest of the discussion, and watch how Ms. Oluo’s relentless willingness not simply to express her values but to illustrate them with her own conduct took the conversation from an outburst by a profane Internet troll to this:

Mrscrotum21: “You are so nice and I am so sorry.”
Oluo: “Thank you. Today is about forgiveness. People do shitty things when they are hurting. Send me a message if you need to talk.”

That’s how to mend tears in the fabric of democracy.

That’s how build a fellow citizen’s capacity for participating constructively in self-government.

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