Progressives are Drowning in Facts

by Robert Kraig, executive director

The last several editions of the Progress Points Message Blog have delved into immediate controversies, such as making the case for more revenue in the Wisconsin state budget, pushing back on privatization, how we are losing the debate on the economy, how our metaphors are undercutting our economic messages, and how we can make winning arguments for a  $15 minimum wage.

In this edition of Progress Points Message Blog, we are going to begin to dig into a more fundamental question: is the progressive obsession with facts undermining our public messages?

It is a common frustration among progressives activists and leaders that “the facts are on our side” on every major issue and yet we are still losing ground. At first, this may strike many activists as a paradox but it is not. A central theme in the burgeoning literature on why progressives are losing the battle for the public mind holds that our Achilles Heal is overreliance on reason and facts. This is argued by a growing list of public intellectuals who have written books on progressive communication transformation, among them George Lakoff, Drew Westen, Jonathan Haidt, Anat Shenker-Osorio, and Paul Waldman.

The progressive default position is to lead with facts, and assume that their audience will adjust their views accordingly. There are historical reasons for this which I don’t have space to examine here. Suffice it to say, when responding to conservative positions we progressives quite naturally react by debunking their often spurious claims about public education, the environment, women’s health, climate change, budget deficits, and every other major issue.

However, the main current of modern psychological research holds that persuasion often takes place before the conscious mind even begins to be aware of it and reason about it. What we consider conscious reasoning is often only a rationalization of these pre-rational mental processes. There is an extremely well documented tendency for humans to only accept facts which confirm their existing views, and to resist any facts that contradict what we already believe. Right-wing talk radio is a monument to the pleasure human beings derive from having their preconceived beliefs validated. The “facts” presented on these fake news shows, however distorted, are readily accepted because they conform to what the base audience already wants to believe.

The pathbreaking research on the preconscious “associative mind” was begun by Nobel Prize Winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky. Their own research over thirty years and a large volume of research from other scholars confirming their central tenets is summarized in Kahneman’s classic book, Thinking Fast and Slow. In the book the human mind is described through the conceptual metaphor of two characters: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is the automatic associative mind which is the driving force and System 2 is the rational and deliberative mind. One of their key findings is that although System 2 thinks it is the hero of the story, it is actually a supporting character and more often than not merely ratifies the conclusions rapidly, automatically, and unconsciously reached by System 1.

Critics of progressive communication deploy variations on Kahneman’s theme. For example, Jonathan Haidt uses the conceptual metaphor of the “rider and the elephant” to describe the interaction between the associative mind (System 1) and the rational mind (System 2). The “rider” guides but does not fully control the much larger and often emotionally reactive “elephant” which often acts immediately based on previous associations, such as what is dangerous, what is painful, and what is pleasurable.

I do want to point out that writers such as Lakoff, Westen, and Haidt have a tendency to overstate the newness of their positions on the limited role of reason in human persuasion. Over 2,000 years ago Aristotle’s treatise on Rhetoric ranked reason (logos) behind both character (ethos) and emotion (pathos) as a lever of persuasion. In addition, the Scottish rhetorical theory that influenced leading American statesman in the late 18th and 19th Centuries put a premium on passion as the source of true persuasive power.

Although the idea that persuasion is not a purely rational process is not itself new, the scientific findings of the last three decades are critically important for understanding how progressives can become more persuasive. One of the most important findings by Kahneman and Tversky is that System 1 is prone to systematic errors which are consistent, and can be accounted for. We will explore many of these patterns in future message blogs.

Transforming progressive communication will require progressive thought leaders to take this academic research into account. We need to better adapt to how the “elephant” (the preconscious human associative mind) actually processes information, how common sense is created and maintained, and how worldviews can be changed over time. This requires a deemphasis of rational argument and a greater focus on triggering powerful constructive emotions, conceptual models and metaphors, narrative, cultural myths, and constant repetition.

Because progressive reformers by definition have fewer resources than the well heeled interests with which we contend for power, these emotions must be powerful enough to mobilize tens of thousands of people to exercise their full agency as democratic citizens to balance the playing field against wealth and power.

To do this we will need to get over some of our hangups about rational thought. Progressives as heirs of the Enlightenment believe deeply in reason and fear that non-rational forms of public persuasion are a descent into propaganda and unethical public manipulation. In fact, when considered from the context of a truly values-based strategy, use of modern persuasion techniques is the most ethical course.

First, if the values to which we are seeking to open the public are themselves well considered and reflect our deepest moral aspirations, then the persuasion has a strong ethical basis.

Second, we have a moral duty to make what is “right” and “just” prevalent (to evangelize). The refusal to use the most effective tools to reach the hearts and minds of our audience is itself an ethical failure.

Third, the best research on public persuasion shows that non-rational appeals are needed to open an audience to logical argument. Therefore these tools are needed to prepare the way for public engagement with the products of our best research and rational thought. For example, if we can’t open an audience to consider the consequences of climate change, we can’t prompt them to consider the scientific facts we want them to act on.

In future Progress Points Message Blogs, we will explore how progressives can use the best modern research on the human associative mind. In particular, we will explore how progressives can use the most compelling shared values in American culture to win public arguments and build a market for fundamental reform across all issue areas.

Robert Kraig is executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. He holds a PhD in Rhetoric (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1999) and has published a number of articles and a book on American public discourse. He is part of a major new project to transform Wisconsin progressive communication which is a partnership between Citizen Action of Wisconsin, High Ground Institute, and Wisconsin Voices. Robert can be reached at robert.kraig@citizenactionwi.org

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  • commented 2015-07-17 10:55:11 -0500
    “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” (John Steinbeck) American lives are steeped in a plethora of myths, i.e., rugged individualism, freedom, capitalism, patriotism, family, … Today, all of these terms have been appropriated by right wing ideologues, financed by Wall Street and big business. If progressives want to win this confrontation between the ossified establishment and the rest of society, it must pry the mythology from the establishment’s cold, dead hands and infuse new, authentic life into this type of language.
  • commented 2015-06-13 11:34:59 -0500
    Spot on Robert. The Neocons beat us to the punch in the simplification of intent, i.e., right to work and citizens united.
    Both sound good and play into the lazy and limited attention span of typical citizens. Consequently, they fooled them into voting against their own interests.