Your Way

Chapter 11

"Elect me, and I pledge not to break your windows and burn your barns."

Modern political campaigns are the archetype of brute force behind the mask of reason. Since government operates by threat, politicians assume that persuasion is done that way too. Our candidate is a saint; theirs a devil. Ours will enrich you; theirs will ruin you. Vote our way, else your children will starve and your happiness will wither. Voting for the other guy is not just unwise, it's immoral. If you vote wrong, don't come crying to us when you lose your job.

Just to make sure that no hint of choice can survive, we don't even get the choice of not voting. It's irresponsible not to vote, and practically fatal to vote wrong. The theme of every campaign is: you have no choice; my opponent would bring disaster.

"But wait!" says the politico. "I'm not threatening to do anything! The other guy is the threat! I'm only warning of it."

The trouble with that is that we have all watched the mob enforcer on TV saying, "No, sir! This ain't no threat. It's just a friendly warning that not everybody is self-controlled like me. No telling what some hot-heads will do."

Whenever a politician says that his opponent will do terrible things and he will not, he is saying to the voters, "Elect me, or else." He is using the method of the barn burner and the Mafia enforcer: "My way or no way." He is counting on the influence of threat.

Do threats work as influence? Everybody knows the answer to that from personal experience. The answer is: it depends. A threat that is credible in one context is laughable in another. Your reaction to a threat is compliance in some circumstances, defiance in others. The only thing a threat maker can count on is what it will not do: it will not make people like him.

Politicians assure us that polls prove "negative campaigns" work. Then they go back to wondering why nobody likes politicians.

Political persuasion would be a candidate's attempt to influence others by prompting them to think about his character and methods. Political warnings do the opposite: they prompt people to think about the other guy.

Under the influence of high-priced political wizards, modern candidates spend millions of dollars trying to get you to think about their opponents. You find yourself squinting at the TV, not too sure which side an ad favors. Hint: if the picture shows the candidate frowning, it is probably an attack ad against him. Then why, you might ask, is the sound track so confusing? Because it needs to stay legal, while trying to get across that the candidate's mere existence is a threat to you.

Let's see if it would help a political candidate to try using persuasion.

You're running for City Council. You wonder how to get voters to vote for you. When you think of it that way, ignoring free will, the obvious solution is to threaten them, or to hypnotize them with your charm. Those things work when they work, but nobody knows beforehand when that might be. You need something you can plan on.

Try thinking of what you want in a better way. You wonder how to influence voters to consider voting for you. When you think of it that way, taking free will seriously, the obvious solution is to listen. Don't start with a speech, first answer questions. Don't point your finger at opponents; point at neglected facts and new ideas. The reaction you want from people is not, "What jerks those other guys are," but, "Gosh, I never thought of that!" You don't want to prompt people to think about your opponent; you want to prompt people to think about you. You want to urge reasoning not about others, but about you.

If you think people have made up their minds against you, then you want them to change their minds. So you concentrate not on your conclusions but on your methods. "I use Tom Jefferson's way of thinking about government. I divide rights into the ones everybody can exercise on their own, and the ones we need government for. Free speech you can do for yourself, but to be safe you need police. This election is about deciding if earning a living is something you can do yourself, or something you need government for."

When you talk about methods, the theme of your speeches will not be "I'm a saint; he's a jerk." It will be, "Together, we'll fix things up." When you shake hands, you will ask real questions, and benefit from the answers. When you answer questions, you will state common goals, and explain how your way gets there. You will not talk about what others might do, but about what you can do. You will keep the attention on you, and hope that opponents are foolish enough to do that too. When Ronald Reagan ran for governor of California, his opponents were singularly helpful this way. Television ads showed Reagan in a cowboy hat, and said he was an actor. Viewers smiled at the thought of the Marshall riding to the rescue—and were astonished to find that the ads were paid for by an opponent.

Those behind that ad made two mistakes. They confused what they thought of the candidate with what voters thought, and they assumed that voters treat candidates as ends rather than means.

Richard Nixon was one of the most reviled politicians in our history—and one of the most successful. He joined a long line of hated men repeatedly elected to office. It was quite easy to find voters who disliked Nixon even as they voted for him. To them, he was not an end; he was a means. They hoped he would do things they wanted done.

Just as the foolish persuader thinks people will not judge separately his goals and his methods, so the foolish campaigner thinks that voters will not judge separately his personality and his politics. The foolish persuader finds that people share his goals, and assumes they will like his methods. The foolish campaigner finds that people like him a lot, and assumes they will vote for him. The mistake is ignoring free will by assuming that the voter will choose to get the message, but not choose to sort out the ingredients of the message.

Hated candidates win by "riding an issue." They find something voters want done, and promise to do it. When they do this fraudulently—extolling the end but ignoring the means—it sometimes works, sometimes fails. When they do this using the reason of the voters—focusing on means rather than ends—it works predictably, because it makes them partners with the voters, discussing how to accomplish goals. By setting a leadership example, they are adding another influence on their side.

When politicians reject reason, but find that threats are not dependable, they appeal to party loyalty, or class loyalty. They pay tribute to persuasion without using it. They present themselves as partners in cooperation toward a goal that is defined only as "us versus them." Then they cross their fingers and hope for the best.

Only in politics would it be considered clever to spurn intelligent response and court irrational reaction. A candidate who appeals to unreason is hoping that voters are stupid. A campaign aimed at stupidity is not certain to win, but it is certain to turn the smarter voters into enemies. Win or lose, that politician finds that supporters are dull and enemies are bright—not a sure-fire formula for the next election.

While persuasion can be helpful, no political campaign is an example of persuasion. A campaign is a discussion followed by a decision. The discussion is meant to be divisive—to divide voters into yeas and nays. Resolution comes by tallying the vote, not by persuasion. Political discussion in general, however, can be resolved by the influence of reason. It is not really necessary to avoid discussing politics, but only to apply reason to the process. To see how, note how different the issue of voting appears to different people.

If one of my most cherished beliefs is that voting is an issue of loyalty, then my attitude toward opposing political claims will be the same as my attitude toward temptations of all kinds—dutiful resistance. The same will be true if I regard a vote as an act of protest, or of cultural affirmation. If to me a vote is a tactic in a social war, then slogans will be more important than facts. If it is a strategy for economic progress, then facts will be more important than slogans. What discussion needs to discover is not how voting should be regarded, but how it is regarded.

For persuasion, the least important political question is: "How did you vote?" Almost as useless is the next question: "Why did you vote that way?" You get slogans, not information. The question is not how I voted, but why I voted. What did I want to accomplish with my vote? What is my theory of how my vote will accomplish that? Has it worked in the past? Am I satisfied with my mental methods in this area, or not?

If you want to help me change my mind about politics, what you need to know first is: do I want to change my mind?

Everybody is disappointed with the results of past votes. It's hard to think of an area of modern life where there is less satisfaction. Everybody complains that their votes do not do for them what they want—that every choice seems to be the wrong one. In other words, all are eager to improve their thinking on the subject. Learn to help them do that, and you will gain all the political influence you want.

As a persuader rather than a control-freak, you are not trying to make choices for others, but to add reason to the process of choosing. You want the voter to make not just your choice, but the best choice. That is what each voter wants. Since you have a common goal, there is no reason persuasion should fail.

The reason so many political discussions turn sour is our habit of talking about politicians as if they were ends in themselves, while thinking about them as means to our own ends. "My man is the best man for the job," I say, which means that my man is a means to an end. Then I regard any challenge as a personal insult to my man, and by extension, to me. A clever persuader will therefore not begin by attacking my man, but by inquiring about the difference between means and ends.

Once I have got the hang of separating means and ends, then I will be able to discuss my man dispassionately, the way I actually think about him. I can admit reservations without feeling my admiration threatened, or my loyalty in danger. I can figure out how to accommodate your attitude toward my man.

The same analysis applies to political ideas. Even as I declare that egalitarianism is sacred to me, I am thinking about it as a means to an end—universal bliss. What prevents universal bliss, I maintain, is the universal itch to come out ahead. If you attack egalitarianism, I will assume you want universal misery. Good persuasion would begin by asking me about the difference between the universal itch to come out ahead and the universal desire to succeed in life. If I notice that there is no difference, your influence could be profound.

Or perhaps my egalitarianism comes from envy. What I want is simply to steal all wealth greater than my own. A knowledgeable persuader would not ask me about politics, but about stealing. The issue of stealing would have to be resolved before any other discussion could start.

Political discussions flounder because politics is not a primary. Life comes before politics; it, rather than politics, is a common goal. People must first agree that they want to live; then they can discuss how to arrange that. Those who feel able to live with little help will want to arrange things one way; those who feel in need of help will want to arrange things another way. Political persuasion tries to figure out how to accommodate both views without compromising the common goal. To claim failure would be to claim that social cooperation is impossible, despite its manifest success.

It is not politics done by persuasion that is chimerical, but politics done by force. Threats and fraud are forms of force. Political persuasion is the reasoned approach—for Man, the one that works.

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