Thursday, September 26, 2013


From the Nation, Nixonland author Rick Perlstein tells us the wrong way to argue with conservatives:

Despite a continuous flow of examples to the contrary this spring, summer and, now, autumn, our side keeps on wishfully, willfully and rather ignorantly denying the plain evidence in front of their faces about how conservative politics works. Namely, I keep seeing predictions that this, that or the other signal from polls or the political establishment or a traumatized public will “finally” “break the spell” of right-wing extremism on a certain issue, or even on all issues—and then we see that prediction spectacularly fail.


“I mean, a liberal looks at a card like this and says, ‘Isn’t it awful, these school shootings that keep on happenings? Let’s bring those to the forefront, because that helps us, and makes more people want gun control.’ But if you think like a conservative, and you think in terms of good people and evil people, the predominance of evil people makes you want less gun control, and more guns. And if the bad guys have a machine gun, you need a bazooka.”

More here.

Okay, I get it.  I'm not going to personally change any conservative minds.  At least, not with studies, facts, figures, and data.  I've already lost the debate before it's even begun.  I understand that.  After all, I used to be a die-hard conservative Republican myself back when it was "morning in America," and, at that point in my life, there wasn't such a thing as an argument that would get me to agree with liberals on most of their main issues.  Because I already knew that they were wrong and I was right.

So I'm not going to be changing any minds with my brilliant debating skills.  Does this then mean that I should just hang it up?  Give up on the fabulous and fun and informative debates I get into on facebook all the time?  Perlstein asserts that liberals must learn to think like conservatives, a notion with which I fully agree, but I continue to think there's a place, an important place, for traditional debate with conservatives, using traditional support and evidence.  Indeed, we abandon such argumentation only at great risk to ourselves and our country.

Flash back to my former conservative self twenty five years ago.  Nobody but nobody was going to convince me that, say, Keynesian economics wasn't washed up and tired and inaccurate.  Nobody was going to convince me that we didn't need a billion nuclear missiles aimed at the Soviet Union.  I could not be persuaded that my university should divest its funds and holdings from companies doing business with South Africa, and so on.  And really, nobody ever did.  At least, no single individual in a single discussion had the ability to change my mind.  Instead, it was lots of people, in countless discussions, over several years.

Studying theater, in Austin, Texas, put me into a social situation where my conservative ideas were not mainstream.  I was constantly challenged, forced to support my views, again and again.  Even when I was not actively arguing my positions, I heard what lots of others had to say, and had to keep thinking about it all the time.  It wasn't that I was worn down or anything like that.  Rather, the sheer volume of these liberal views I was getting all the time, for several years straight, forced me to eventually give them fair consideration.  When I finally did, I found a lot of these liberal ideas to be reasonable, even if I didn't agree with them at first.  Of course, discovering that liberals had, at the very least, some good points forced me to examine my own conservative views again, and, in light of reasonable liberalism, a lot of my conservative ideas just didn't stand up.

The point is that ideological change within an individual is a gradual process, one that must necessarily take place within a social context--we humans are, after all, herd creatures to a great extent; we want to be just like everybody else in the tribe, and that includes a shared understanding of the world in which we live.  

I mean, how many people who opposed the notion of gay marriage ten or fifteen years ago are cool with it now?  I'll tell you: enough people such that we're seeing gay marriage legalized in a not insignificant number of states today.  None of these people changed their minds overnight.  They had to get used to the idea.  They had to hear the arguments in favor of marriage equality over and over again.  They had to get used to the idea that gay people are, in fact, people, just like everybody else, in spite of years of social conditioning telling them the opposite.  So a few people changed their minds at first, certainly not everybody, but this opened the door for others to follow suit.  Ultimately, society reached a sort of critical mass on the issue, and it is now looking more and more like the overall American tribe is one that places value on the notion of gay rights and equality.

This is why it is extraordinarily important to continue making arguments, real arguments, based on facts and data.  No, it will not change anybody's mind.  At least, not right now, not in one discussion.  But in the long term, with the sustained efforts of lots of liberals, maybe.  Politics aren't about single individuals, anyway.  Politics are about all of us together.  And if we can change the vibe of society, if we can alter the prevailing intellectual winds ever so slightly, if we can make it feel like there's something in the air, just by getting enough people on the left to talk about what they believe, then doors will open.  

That's when people will change their minds.