The Art of Persuasion No. 1 : Emotional Wedges

In my last post (echoed by Rob Bluey here) we mentioned the so-called ‘structure of social change’ or the "political production cycle" a la Bluey. Here’s the process again: big idea, big idea passes to policy shop sausage grinder, which in turn get turned into popular messages. At the macro level, that’s the process, anyway. (I also argued that we’re stuck at the policy shop stage - think tank bubble - and have underinvested in messaging and implementation.)

But how does social change happen at the individual level? I’d argue, by in large, you have to invert the structure, i.e. reverse the process. In other words, you don’t start with big ideas for most people. You start with messages. Stark. Emotional. Once you resonate with someone emotionally, then you can begin to propose policies or offer big ideas. But the initial prick of emotion is the wedge-point upon which the rest gets built (even principles).

So, begin with emotional appeals. How do you get someone’s attention? Narratives, images, stories of real people with real feelings and vaguaries like ‘change’. Emotion. Consider the following two narratives:

- More than 140,000 people died in the bombing of Hiroshima during WW II.

- Elizabeth White is only three years old. Yesterday, her father held her wrist firmly against the kitchen table and hit her fingers one-by-one with a hammer.

Which one has more rational gravity? Okay. Which one has emotional gravity? Emotional gravity almost always wins.

The Left figured this out a long time ago. That’s why everything goes back to “the children.” Think of the global warming commercial with the kid on the train tracks—engine bearing down. Think of the piecemeal regulation and socialization of healthcare (they started with SCHIP, children’s Medicaid). How can you deny any child healthcare?

Of course, we prefer the rational argument. Yes, we feel. But we subordinate our emotions to wider considerations. (Lefties tend to emote first and rationalize ex post.) We should all hope to engage in rational discourse. But the left has abandoned this tack in exchange for ad misericordiam fallacy as tactic. It’s cheating, yes—well, if your standards of discourse come from a logic textbook. But in the marketplace of ideas, we have to sling all sorts of hash. Tit. For. Tat. So that means the Freedom Movement has to take up similar arms. Find the nerve. Strike it. Rational arguments and big ideas come later. (But if you’re going to do it, do it well.)

For example, libertarians try to explain the concept of “concentrated benefits and dispersed costs” when it comes to wasteful government expenditures and other lefty fetishes like light rail. Reasonable criticism to be sure. But most people don’t get it. Why not start with emotion? For example:

Rhonda Smith is struggling to make ends meet. But new regressive rail taxes mean she’ll pay $X more per year for a boondoggle she’ll probably never ride. New taxes rip off the poorest people in our community so wealthy commuters can ride overpriced trains (because they refuse to take buses). Shouldn't we be protecting people like Rhonda? So much for "progressive."

Okay, so maybe there are better examples. Criticize by creating.

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The LEFT learned this long ago?!?

You imply the Left uses these tactics ("Oh won't anybody think of the children"?), when it's been the Right who have mastered it.  From Rudy "Noun, Verb, 9/11" Guiliani to your wonderful leader W and his administration's manipulation of the "terror alert" system preceding elections, you are the master manipulators.

Sometimes the Right misses, as in John "Noun, Verb, POW" McCain (who most of the time is a much better person and public servant than his candidacy's kowtowing to the Religious Right allowed).  But most of the time, courtesy of Lee Atwater (may he rot in hell) and Karl Rove (may he spend eternity with his mentor) the Right nails it, gunning for the least common denominator of the electorate.  The Left has its proponents, too, such as James Carville (I'm not a fan of him, either), but we must bow down to the Right's ability to ignore facts, logic, and rationality, and their ability to hit that emotional punch.  C'mon - when the Right can convince folks whose estates will be worth under $200,000 that a "Death Tax" on MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR estates will leave their families penniless, you have taken the cake.

Leftie bugaboos

You imply the Left uses these tactics

Yes, you just did yourself! You can't speak to the point, you have to conjure up the ghost of Lee Atwater and other bugaboos ....

The Left has mastered the art of the narrative for some time. What's funning is how cut-n-paste predictable it has become ... same tired old themes and attacks ... and Lee Atwater ... gee, that is DECADES OLD.

Now, I dare you, ... TRY to make a cogent point WITHOUT throwing in irrelevent attacks/ digs at the GOP/right/conservatives... I dont think leftists are capable of it.




Corker. Allen. Rinse Wash Repeat.


(if you didn't get that last one, it was a white congressman from georgia, years Obama's junior, referring to the Democratic candidate).

Condescending, immature, and racist. it's no wonder you can't win elections. Since you decided to ask me to stay on point (and I'll admit, it is hard for me), these attacks are quite on point for a discussion about lee atwater.

up next, a discussion about the McCain girls!

Condescending left

Condescending, immature, and racist.

Definitely a pot-kettle-black comment.

it's no wonder you can't win elections

You mean like that Chambliss defeat we just experienced?

Condescending left will lose again with that attitude. Makes me feel confident we will do well in the future.




can anybody make a logical point without attacking someone else? Do you really believe these politicians care about all of you? there are some great politicians trying to do the right thing, and you may share the views and values with some of them, but if you think dropping your needs to get a little bit more power or money isnt an option to the people in DC than I feel sorry for you.

It is so obvious that both parties use that narrative ("why don't you want children to have healthcare" vs. "why do you want children to be attacked by terrorists").

as to what i think is the main point of the post...i don't think it has to be emotional as much as personal. kids/family are personal to many people, and the consequences of political actions can be serious for those groups. but you have to explain how your idea would specifically impact a voter for them to accept the idea.


This post boils down to who is better at button-pushing.

Claim is made that "the Left figured this out long ago", and maybe they did.  But no one has used it in recent cycles more than the Right, or used it better to energize the base.

From Reagan to the "Contract With America" to "Stay the Course", the Right has used the hot-button, "Social Conservative" issue like a club to beat the Left.

I'm not sure what Max is arguing here:  Find the Nerve?  Strike it?  How much harder can you strike than by going to rallies with crucifixes, purple thumbs, fake purple hearts, and embryos in jars, to name some recent GOP props?

More leftwing bologna - distorting the contract with America

"Contract With America" to "Stay the Course", the Right has used the hot-button, "Social Conservative" issue like a club to beat the Left.

First, the Contract with America was a positive agenda.

Second, there were no 'social conservative' items in there.

Doubt me? Check it out:

Like Lincoln, our first Republican president, we intend to act "with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right." To restore accountability to Congress. To end its cycle of scandal and disgrace. To make us all proud again of the way free people govern themselves.

On the first day of the 104th Congress, the new Republican majority will immediately pass the following major reforms, aimed at restoring the faith and trust of the American people in their government:

  • FIRST, require all laws that apply to the rest of the country also apply equally to the Congress;

  • SECOND, select a major, independent auditing firm to conduct a comprehensive audit of Congress for waste, fraud or abuse;

  • THIRD, cut the number of House committees, and cut committee staff by one-third;

  • FOURTH, limit the terms of all committee chairs;

  • FIFTH, ban the casting of proxy votes in committee;

  • SIXTH, require committee meetings to be open to the public;

  • SEVENTH, require a three-fifths majority vote to pass a tax increase;

  • EIGHTH, guarantee an honest accounting of our Federal Budget by implementing zero base-line budgeting.

Thereafter, within the first 100 days of the 104th Congress, we shall bring to the House Floor the following bills, each to be given full and open debate, each to be given a clear and fair vote and each to be immediately available this day for public inspection and scrutiny.

1. THE FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: A balanced budget/tax limitation amendment and a legislative line-item veto to restore fiscal responsibility to an out- of-control Congress, requiring them to live under the same budget constraints as families and businesses. (Bill Text) (Description)

2. THE TAKING BACK OUR STREETS ACT: An anti-crime package including stronger truth-in- sentencing, "good faith" exclusionary rule exemptions, effective death penalty provisions, and cuts in social spending from this summer's "crime" bill to fund prison construction and additional law enforcement to keep people secure in their neighborhoods and kids safe in their schools. (Bill Text) (Description)

3. THE PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY ACT: Discourage illegitimacy and teen pregnancy by prohibiting welfare to minor mothers and denying increased AFDC for additional children while on welfare, cut spending for welfare programs, and enact a tough two-years-and-out provision with work requirements to promote individual responsibility. (Bill Text) (Description)

4. THE FAMILY REINFORCEMENT ACT: Child support enforcement, tax incentives for adoption, strengthening rights of parents in their children's education, stronger child pornography laws, and an elderly dependent care tax credit to reinforce the central role of families in American society. (Bill Text) (Description)

5. THE AMERICAN DREAM RESTORATION ACT: A S500 per child tax credit, begin repeal of the marriage tax penalty, and creation of American Dream Savings Accounts to provide middle class tax relief. (Bill Text) (Description)

6. THE NATIONAL SECURITY RESTORATION ACT: No U.S. troops under U.N. command and restoration of the essential parts of our national security funding to strengthen our national defense and maintain our credibility around the world. (Bill Text) (Description)

7. THE SENIOR CITIZENS FAIRNESS ACT: Raise the Social Security earnings limit which currently forces seniors out of the work force, repeal the 1993 tax hikes on Social Security benefits and provide tax incentives for private long-term care insurance to let Older Americans keep more of what they have earned over the years. (Bill Text) (Description)

8. THE JOB CREATION AND WAGE ENHANCEMENT ACT: Small business incentives, capital gains cut and indexation, neutral cost recovery, risk assessment/cost-benefit analysis, strengthening the Regulatory Flexibility Act and unfunded mandate reform to create jobs and raise worker wages. (Bill Text) (Description)

9. THE COMMON SENSE LEGAL REFORM ACT: "Loser pays" laws, reasonable limits on punitive damages and reform of product liability laws to stem the endless tide of litigation. (Bill Text) (Description)

10. THE CITIZEN LEGISLATURE ACT: A first-ever vote on term limits to replace career politicians with citizen legislators. (Description)


The Contract on America

If you don't think that this document represents a wish-list of Social Conservative values, including shrinking government, cutting taxes, focus on "family", focus on "security", and focus on so-called "personal responsibilty", then you don't know you are a social conservative.

Embryos in jars? Easy now.

Sigh. No one is arguing that the right hasn't used emotional wedges. It's just that they've not done it particularly well--especially when it comes to economic issues. I won't pretend to lay claim to people who show up with jars full of embryos. Because you can take things too far and tactics can blow up in your face. Or, just like the flag after 9/11, too much of anything tends to conjure the gag reflex. But subtlety, variation and unexpected emotions summoned at the right times can be effective, Jim Dandy. It's not a blunt instrument to be sure. But it can and should be used effectively if we expect to gain ground on people prepared to bring "the children" into every national conversation.We've got to get better at it.

that seems backwards.

Oddly, when I think of people bringing "the children" into the conversation, it seems to be inevitably conservatives (in fact, it's a recurring point of satire on the left: cf. the pastor's wife on The Simpsons crying "Won't somebody think of the children?!" at all sorts of irrelevant times, or the Kevin Bacon movie "Footloose", neither of which are made of whole cloth). Things like

  • filtering Internet access in libraries and schools
  • teaching creationism intelligent design in schools
  • restricting access to books in school libraries (less common nowadays)
  • abstinence-only education and restricting access to birth control
  • fighting gay rights

are all done, for the most part, under the banner of "protecting children and families". Perhaps you are only a small-government conservative and you couldn't care less about those things, but social conservatives have dominated the GOP agenda for decades, and honestly I don't think small-government ideas have had a serious chance in the policy (as opposed to electoral) arena for a very long time.

The left does tend to pull out "the children" sometimes, but I think it's more along the lines of "children should have health insurance" or "children should have enough to eat", where I don't think it's inappropriate. To take those as an example, I'm not sure the GOP has actually responded to those uses of government directly. For example, it seems clear that children should have health insurance (and if not, I'd like to hear the reasons why); but when the response ends at "Government shouldn't be in the business of guaranteeing insurance", that doesn't actually address the problem.

yeah I've been getting that too.

the sense that people don't bother going past their political ideology to actually having solutions.

UNDERSTAND: even time is a solution -- which can be said to the gayrights activists "the bigots will die out and then you can have state sanctioned marriage"

But I ask about Racism, you ask about Health Care -- and we get zilch.

The problem is universal

Max's argument is that humans are prone to viewing things in terms of emotional, evocative imagery, stories and metaphors.  That's human nature.  So we need to learn how to communicate on those terms.

why is it a problem again?

can't you be bothered to read the fucking research that says that human decision making is better AND faster than rational decisionmaking???

Reminds me of an old book of stories my mother had

One of them was about a man in the future who went from dunce to genius by taking advanced classes. One day a runaway train was barreling towards him. He sat there on the tracks, calculating the speed, how to stop the train, the chances of him stopping the train, the likelihood of a reward, etc etc, until he finally got hit.

He was on the last day of class. The lesson was, "How to Make Decisions Quickly".