How to argue over the Thanksgiving table

Idealog_(3).jpgIn the wake of the disastrous 2014 election, you might be dreading Thanksgiving a bit. Every year your loud-mouthed right-wing Uncle Mort insists on debating politics over the dinner table. This year, you expect, he’ll be louder than ever.

There is no point in trying to “educate” Mort. Instead, follow the basic rules of persuasion that we describe in our book, Voicing Our Values. Find a point of agreement and use values to show that you understand his point of view, and that overall, you share the same goals. It’s very unlikely you can get Mort to change his mind, but you will throw him off his game and connect with other “persuadable” people around the table.

Below are short discussions of three issues the might come up: (1) immigration, (2) Obamacare, and (3) taxes and the 47 percent. For much more about these—and dozens of other policies—consult Voicing Our Values.

Immigration

Right wing advocates want to make this debate about upholding the rule of law: “But they broke the law!” they will say. If these are the terms of debate, you will lose; it strongly suggests the solution is to treat immigrants as criminals. You must move the conversation to our nation’s broken patchwork of immigration policies.

Remember to start the discussion in agreement with your audience. We know people think the current system is a wreck and that we need “a commonsense immigration process.” The values of “freedom, opportunity and security” are extremely popular and wholly applicable to this issue.

Say . . .

Due to years of gridlock in Washington, the United States immigration system is a mess. This is the time for everyone to stop playing politics and create a commonsense immigration process based on our American values of freedom, opportunity and security for all. The U.S. Senate has already passed an immigration reform bill but House Speaker John Boehner hasn’t done anything with it. Republicans in the House should break the gridlock and pass a bill to create an immigration process that is both realistic and fair to everyone. 

The difficult part is getting persuadable voters past their feelings about illegal immigrants. Depending on how it’s asked, as many as 40 percent of voters believe that “illegal immigrants” should be deported. You cannot change the minds of voters about what should happen—that’s why you raise the obvious point that mass deportations are never going to happen. Persuadable voters recognize that fact; that’s why they generally support reforms that end in citizenship. The suggested language below, “everyone knows,” may not be literally accurate, but it is an effective device that helps move your audience from an emotional to a practical point of view. 

Say . . .

Everybody knows that it is simply impossible to deport eleven million unauthorized immigrants who live here now. Whatever is right or wrong, that’s just not going to happen. We need a real solution to the problem. Congress needs to pass a bill that creates an immigration process that is both fair and realistic

If you feel you have to describe Obama’s executive action on immigration, do it this way:

Say . . .

The action would direct immigration enforcement officials to focus on threats to national security and public safety, and not on deporting otherwise law-abiding immigrants. Immigrants that are parents of children who are legal U.S. residents could qualify to stay and work temporarily in the United States, without being deported, if they have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, pay taxes, and pass a criminal background check. 

If you are arguing about whether Obama has the authority:

Say . . .

The only way to fix our broken immigration system once and for all is for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation. But in the meantime, the President, as the chief law enforcement officer, has the clear legal authority to set enforcement priorities to deport drug dealers and smugglers instead of immigrants who have lived and worked here for years. 


Obamacare

In debate over the Affordable Care Act, keep two things in mind. First, Americans know almost nothing about the ACA. They simply don’t understand what it is or how it works. Second, voters overwhelmingly believe that the ACA is flawed and needs to be fixed. At the same time, only the conservative base wants to repeal the ACA—persuadable voters don’t support repeal.

Say . . .

For years, our health care system was unfair. Insurance companies charged too much and their coverage was full of holes. We needed a better system. The Affordable Care Act has helped millions get coverage; slashed the costs that seniors pay for prescriptions; allowed millions of young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance; ended lifetime limits on coverage; and forced insurance companies to pay $1 billion in rebates to overcharged customers. But obviously, the ACA also has flaws and we need to improve it. The only dispute now is whether to repeal it. Repeal would hand our health care system back to the insurance companies, allowing them to deny coverage because of preexisting conditions, drop coverage when you get sick, and charge women more than men. 

Among persuadable voters, nearly everyone will agree with these first three sentences. Then you need to give a very brief explanation of the ACA, assuming your audience knows almost nothing. Make it clear that you agree the ACA needs fixing—everybody thinks so. But don’t be too defensive; quickly pivot to the most persuasive point, that we can’t go back to the old, flawed, insurance company-dominated system. That is the most important point. 

Taxes and the 47 percent

Right wingers try to blame tax (and budget) issues on the poor, immigrants, government employees or penny-ante cheaters. Voters are perfectly willing to embrace that narrative. It is your job to direct attention to the real problem—that wealthy individuals and big corporations have rigged taxes (and budgets) on all levels of government in order to further enrich themselves.

Say . . .

Our tax system is unfair. The burden on working families has increased because the system is rigged to favor the rich and big corporations that evade taxes anytime they want to. We need a system where everyone pays their fair share. 

Voters are for tax fairness, and so are you. Everyone should have a fair shot, pay their fair share, and play by the same fair rules. If you have to specifically address the “47 percent:” 

Say . . .

When you mention the 47 percent, that applies to only a single type of tax, the federal income tax. But you know, everyone who earns a salary pays Social Security and Medicare taxes. Everyone who buys products pays sales taxes. Everyone who has a phone or cable service pays taxes. When all the federal, state and local taxes and fees are added together, almost everybody pays about 20 to 30 percent of their income. But the richest one percent of people own over one-third of all the combined wealth in America—stocks, bonds, businesses, real estate, cars, jewelry. The richest five percent own nearly two-thirds of all the wealth. Considering the tremendous benefits they get from our federal, state and local government systems, they do not pay anywhere near their fair share in taxes.

Again, for more on these and dozens of other political issues, click here to see Voicing Our Values.

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Police cameras to protect public safety

Technology is changing the business of law enforcement. Because of DNA evidence, we know that far too many innocent people have been prosecuted and imprisoned. Because of cellphone cameras, we know there is far too much unnecessary violence by police officers.

Part of the problem is old-fashioned police procedures—an overconfidence in unreliable eyewitnesses and an emphasis on profiling and random-but-targeted stops. These problems can and must be solved; our states and localities need to adopt fairer and more accurate law enforcement procedures.

At the same time that technology has cast a spotlight on police procedures that require reform, technology can also provide some solutions—specifically small video cameras.

 

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It's the media, stupid

The 2014 election has been a shameful, ignorant affair. Americans are choosing candidates based on obsolete stereotypes, phony memes, and absurdly untruthful campaign ads. Why does the mainstream media tend to repeat all the lies?

In 1997, legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee gave a speech about truth and lies in politics. An excerpt recently published in the Post sheds light on our current problem.

Bradlee explained that newspapers “don’t tell the truth” when they (a) don’t know the truth, (b) quote someone who is lying, or (c) accept someone’s false “spin.” Even when they know it’s falsehood, the media generally won’t dare come out and say “That is a lie.”

[F]or better or for worse, we [have] aided and abetted in publishing something that wasn’t the truth, something that was a lie. I hate to hedge this by calling them non-truths; I like to call them lies. And even the boldest editorial pages, where such a comment might be appropriate, are reluctant to strike that hard, that fast. So we have to wait, searching aggressively for ways to prove the lie….

That was the 1990s. The media—television, radio, and especially newspapers—tried to act as watchdogs, and couldn’t always do so immediately. But at least the best of the media tried to dig into the story and prove the lie. We’re no longer in Bradlee’s era; the media has changed in several unfortunate ways.

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What We Stand For in Twelve Words

What explains the popularity of the conservative brand? Polls consistently show that, when presented one at a time, Americans support progressive, not conservative, policies.

By margins of at least two to one, our fellow citizens favor a substantial raise in the minimum wage; believe big corporations and the rich are paying too little in taxes; oppose repealing the Affordable Care Act;support the idea that Medicare should negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies; want strong federal action to address climate change; would mandate a background check before any gun purchase; think labor unions are necessary to protect workers;oppose discrimination against gays and lesbians;and do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Americans are progressive when it comes to specific issues. But voters know extremely little about those. They “know” instead about political generalities.

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Understand the anti-teacher narratives

If you listen to the advocates for increased standardized testing and decreased rights for teachers, you will hear a series of narratives or stories that underlie all their arguments. These stories are a powerful means of persuasion, even though they are false. The discussion below is not our normal "use these words in debate," which you can find here. Instead it is for you to understand that the other side's arguments are a pile of myths.

First, they insist there is a crisis in education.

The sky is falling! Our schools are failing, they assert, based on the "evidence" of average scores on standardized tests, both domestic and international. This "crisis" in education is used to justify their extreme tactics: closing schools, firing teachers, narrowing curriculum, greatly expanding the use of standardized tests, teaching to the test, opening charters willy-nilly, handing “failing” schools to for-profit “turnaround” specialists, and on and on. There is absolutely no evidence that any of these tactics improve children's lives.

The truth is, there is no education crisis. As Diane Ravitch has fully documented, on domestic standardized tests, and by other measures, student achievement has been rising steadily for decades. And when we look at international standardized tests, if you control for poverty—comparing on an apples-to-apples basis—our students rank as the best in the world. The only reason U.S. test scores look mediocre compared to other countries is that low-income students everywhere score very poorly and we have the highest rate of child poverty among the leading western nations. In short, we don’t have a crisis in education; we have a crisis in child poverty. It's poverty we need to address.

Second, they claim that market-based tactics are the solution.

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Is Obamacare now helping progressives?

Right-wingers and the media have spent the past few years confidently asserting that Obamacare is a political albatross. This was backed up by polls that mindlessly combined conservatives who opposed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) because it “goes too far” with  liberals who opposed the ACA because it “doesn’t go far enough.”

Now most pundits have switched direction, pointing out that Americans do not want to repeal the ACA, even in red states. Those writers now say that Obamacare is no longer a powerful political issue. But what if they’re wrong again?

2014 is a turnout election. Predictions of Democratic disaster are based on the assumption that the conservative base will show up to vote this November while the progressive base will not.

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Should your police have military equipment?

More than 8,000 local police forces, including at least 117 college police agencies, have received more than $5 billion in military equipment from the federal government under the “1033 Program.” This obscure anti-terrorism program was thrust into the news when police in Ferguson, Missouri were faced with protests against the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a local officer. As the New York Times explained:

Police officers in full body armor responded. A sniper rode a BearCat armored truck, paid for with $360,000 in federal money. They pointed assault rifles at unarmed protesters and fired tear gas into crowds.

“What we're witnessing is the militarization of policing, and it has become commonplace in towns across America,” wrote Kara Dansky of the ACLU. Local police now routinely have automatic weapons and heavily armored military vehicles. They have camouflage combat fatigues, flash-bang grenades and night-vision rifle scopes. At a recent U.S. Senate hearing, Alan F. Estevez, the principal deputy undersecretary for acquisition for the Defense Department said:

Bayonets are available under the [1033] program. I can’t answer what a local police force would need a bayonet for.

You can and should do something about this.

First, ask your own law enforcement agencies whether they own or have ordered any military equipment. If so, find out how much the storage and maintenance costs, what they do with the equipment, and whether there is a training program to make sure those military weapons and accessories are not misused.

Second, you can sponsor legislation to ban such weaponry or set up procedures to ensure proper oversight for the acquisition and possession of military equipment. New Jersey State Senator Nia Gill is introducing two bills to bring some accountability and transparency to the process.

Military equipment clearly did more harm than good in Ferguson. Does the use of this equipment make sense in your state, city or county?

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Progressive Values 101

It is an exaggeration to say that today’s progressives don’t have a philosophy. Progressives have a fairly consistent agenda–we know what we stand for. The problem is, we don’t have an effective framework to communicate our philosophy to persuadable voters. Because a crucial election looms before us, progressive thinkers are rightfully focusing on this problem.

But in fashioning a solution, we must ensure that the language we use speaks to the Americans we are trying to persuade. This is a challenge, because most persuadable voters are not like us—they are normal people. Unlike us, they don’t think much about public policy, they don’t have a policy checklist for candidates and they don’t speak policy or use intellectual jargon.

How do we persuade people who are so different? By assuring them that we share their values. “Values” need not be the anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-science mores of the right wing. In politics, they are ideals that describe the kind of society we are trying to build. There is a set of values that progressives can employ to frame public policy in language that will win over persuadable voters. And to those we are trying to reach, our values will sound very familiar: freedom, opportunity and security.

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Are today’s progressives bad at message framing?

Looking back, without expensive consultants or focus groups, liberals of the 60s and 70s brilliantly framed their federal programs as the Peace Corps, Head Start, Model Cities, Fair Housing, Equal Employment Opportunity, and the Clean Air Act. Nowadays, we often moan about the ineffective language that progressives use, but in fairness we've found success with frames like clean elections, environmental justice, living wage, smart growth, assault weapons, hate crimes, predatory lending, and racial profiling.

A problem, perhaps, is that much of the left doesn’t really understand “framing.” Here's a simple way to think about it. We all know words that are universally understood to contain “cues” inside them, passing judgment on the activity described. For the same behavior, a person could be called “thrifty” or “a miser.” The same person could be called “brave” or “foolhardy.” The words we use tip off the audience whether to feel positively or negatively about that person or activity. Obviously, there are words we use in public policy where everyone gets the same “cue,” like freedom, responsibility, public safety, or clean water. But there are also words which bring to mind positive images in some people and negative images in others. “Government” is generally a positive or neutral word to progressives, but it is a negative word to people outside of our base. This is the simplest explanation for why we frame. When we persuade, we need to be aware of the way our audience feels about words and phrases—most especially when the audience gets a different “cue” from the language than we see inside our heads.

 

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D.C. School Test Results Reflect Utter Failure of “Reform” Policies

If this isn’t failure, what is?

The latest results of the DC-CAS, the District of Columbia’s high-stakes standardized test, show that the percentage of public school students judged “proficient” or better in reading has declined over the past five years in every significant subcategory except “white.”

This is important, and not just for Washington, D.C. It is an indictment of the whole corporatized education movement. During these five years, first Michelle Rhee and then her assistant/successor Kaya Henderson controlled DCPS and they did everything that the so-called “reformers” recommend: relying on standardized tests to rate schools, principals and teachers; closing dozens of schools; firing hundreds of teachers and principals; encouraging the unchecked growth of charters; replacing fully-qualified teachers with Teach For America and other non-professionals; adopting teach-to-the-test curricula; introducing computer-assisted “blended learning”; increasing the length of the school day; requiring an hour of tutoring before after-school activities; increasing hours spent on tested subjects and decreasing the availability of subjects that aren’t tested. Based on the city’s own system of evaluation, none of it has worked.

Here are the DC-CAS results copied directly from the DCPS website. These do not include charter schools; school authorities chose to hide those longitudinal results. But we know from a detailed memorandum by Broader, Bolder Approach to Education that—based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—results including charter schools would be little different than this.

DC-CAS_CHART_2009_to_2014.jpg

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