“Everybody hates this idea, so it must be great.”
I encountered the work of political communications strategist Anat Shenker-Osorio through The Persuaders, an important book about how people change one another’s minds that Anand Giridharadas published in 2022.
Shenker-Osorio helps politicians and movements develop “messages,” but unlike the tradition concept of messaging as a way of bypassing the audience’s critical faculties, Shenker-Osorio wants to engage them.
That is, rather than tricking you into supporting an issue by, say, linking it with motherhood and apple pie, Shenker-Osorio wants to actually convince you that a given issue deserves your support.
At the center of Shenker-Osorio’s work is the notion of “persuadability.” For Shenker-Osorio, a “centrist” isn’t someone who wants a little bit of both; they’re someone who hasn’t made up their mind about which option they prefer.
To illustrate this point, Shenker-Osorio asks us to imagine a family trying to decide what to order for dinner. Some members of the family want pizza, others want burgers.
Could that family be satisfied with a pizzaburger?
The point is, the family is undecided . It’s not that they want to converge on a compromise solution that mixes the two options. That won’t please everyone — it pleases no one.
A pizzaburger isn’t a fair way to resolve conflicts about which direction a group should make. It’s an unpalatable slurry.
The job of a convincer is to persuade the pizza eaters to go for the burger. For this, Shenker-Osorio says we should borrow from the right, whose most visible avatars deliberately set out to alienate their unpersuadable opponents.
When far right figures say grotesque, unhinged things about “groomers” or “Jewish space lasers” or whatever, they’re trying to trick their opponents into repeating the statement: “Can you believe these bozos want to give teachers AR-15s?”
Getting your opponents to repeat your message increases the chance that it will be heard by someone who finds it persuasive and switches from burgers to pizza.
By this logic, the left increases its chances of taking power by saying bold things that trigger conservative Red Scare paranoiacs and religious maniacs. When they run around and say, “The left wants to take away your assault rifles, making housing and college free, and replace your 401(k) with a guaranteed pension,” they do our work for us.
Shenker-Osorio says the left’s enemy isn’t the right, it’s cynicism. The problem isn’t that authoritarians want to erase the division between church and state, or take away our right to control our bodies. The problem is that this minority can get away with these unpopular proposals because the people who disagree with them think nothing can be done to stop them.
For Shenker-Osorio, the tonic for this is to switch from the negative framing (“abolish ICE”) to positive ones: “respect all families.” Rather than saying “end the climate emergency,” she wants us to call for “ensuring clean, safe air to breathe and water to drink.”
When the right says they want to cut taxes to improve the economy, we counter with, “we’ll raise wages and increase consumption, which is better for the economy.”
Shenker-Osorio proposes a three-step method for changing minds. First, identify a shared value (“people who work for living ought to earn a living”). Move on to a problem (“our divisions distract us while rich people pick our pockets and hand the spoils to their corporate cronies”). And then, the solution: “rewrite the rules so that the wealthiest few pay what they owe and all of us have what we need for generations to come.”
Shenker-Osorio is on my mind right now because a group of super-wealthy political naifs have decided that American politics is divided between the extremes of the GOP and the Democratic party, and are looking to draft Joe Manchin or someone like him to team up with a Republican running mate like Susan Collins to run as a third-party ticket in 2024.
This whole thing is a wildly bad idea. First, it’s politically unhinged. The Democrats aren’t extreme leftists. The party’s main policy planks barely rise to the level of liberalism.
Anywhere else in the world, they’d be a center-right or just-plain-right party. The idea that “polarization” arises out of Democratic “extremism” doesn’t bear even the most cursory scrutiny.
The real problem is that the GOP has swung to the most extreme right, to the point where it is appointing militiamen in its caucus to powerful committee roles, from which perch they promote surreal fantasies about the supreme legal authority of sheriffs. The Republican party isn’t subtle about wanting to disenfranchise its opponents, or its mission to create a white, Christian nation.
The fact that the GOP manages to call the Democrats “socialists” for supporting any public services and the universal right to vote doesn’t make the Democrats into socialists. This is real “we have both kinds: country and western” politics.
But beyond the political naivete (or bad faith) of calling Democrats “radicals,” there’s the pizzaburger problem.
No Labels’ wealthy backers assume the reason that so many people sit out US elections is that they want a little of each party’s agenda. But this is both implausible and unsupported by evidence.
While it’s certainly true that the winner of nearly every US election is none of the above, it’s a mistake to assume that this means that American voters are staying home because they’re waiting for the Pizzaburger Party to offer them a Manchin-Collins 2024 ticket.
You can’t win elections by offering a ticket that everyone hates equally. But you can boost support for the left’s leading opponent — cynicism — and not let the batshit right take power, and take away our rights.