This is a transcript from the June 15 edition of The Gist, Slate’s daily news and culture podcast. Slate Plus transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Mike Pesca: These days, it seems like we’re just talking past each other. In this age of polarized politics and siloed media, there are tribes separated by a common language. On the one hand, you have the globalist urban elites. They get pretty annoying, what with their safe spaces and quinoa. On the other hand, you have the senseless, brain-eating, undead who feast on the flesh of the righteous. That ain’t my analogy. That’s Stanford professor Robb Willer who, well, rather than defame him any further, he is a professor of sociology and organizational behavior at Stanford.
Hello, Robb. How are you?
Robb Willer: I’m good. It’s a pleasure to be on the show.
Pesca: Absolutely. I’m going to have you explain why I was talking about zombies there for a second.
Willer: When I think about political polarization in this country, I’m often reaching for some sort of movie analogy, because I’m obsessed with movies, like most Americans.
I think about different movies we might think of ourselves being in, in this country. Maybe it’s a war movie, or a disaster movie. It definitely feels like it’s a political disaster right now.
But the one that I keep coming back to is I feel like we’re in a zombie apocalypse movie. We’re just trying to hold on to what we hold dear, protect ourselves from this army of the undead that’s thoughtless and spreading their disease, marching across this country. American liberals definitely think of themselves as the good guys in the zombie apocalypse movie, like Brad Pitt, just trying to hold on to the country, defend it from this zombie horde.
But what they don’t take into account, I think, is that conservatives have more or less the same narrative in their head. They also think that they’re defending themselves from a mindless ideological horde that’s trying to ruin the country. That’s a tough place, when both sides think they’re the good guys in a zombie apocalypse movie.
Pesca: Right. We’re Brad Pitt. They’re Charlton Heston in The Omega Man.
If a listener were to say, “Oh, he’s one of these guys who will tell us, ‘Why can’t we all get along?’” I would say, “Dig a little deeper on that,” because he’s not actually saying, “Why can’t we all get along?” He’s explaining that even the concept of all getting along is not something that both sides subscribe to equally.
Willer: Yeah, that’s well put.
I think that, one of the bigger dilemmas we face with the polarization in our country, is that our political topography is undergirded by this underlying moral topography. We have this political divide that we see above the surface, these warring parties and policies and candidates and ideologies. And that’s all vivid. You can turn on CNN, and you can see that pretty clearly. But what’s less clear, is that the whole thing, under the surface, rests on a moral divide.
And when something rests on a moral divide like that, that’s a tough thing to resolve, because people’s values are their most deeply held opinions and attitudes, by definition. People are willing to fight and die for their values.
So when we have these political conversations, we’re asking people to agree with us on our favorite presidential candidate or our favorite policy. Health care, same-sex marriage, whatever it is. But we’re asking them not just to agree with us on the issue, but also on our moral reason for having that position. That’s asking a lot, and it’s not surprising that it usually doesn’t work very well.
Pesca: So you and your co-researcher, Matt Feinberg of the University of Toronto, put your finger on four key values, for liberals and conservatives. Liberals believe in equality, fairness, care, and protection from harm. And conservatives tend to endorse loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority, and moral purity.
If you know that, you begin to say to yourself, “Oh, so all these arguments that are really persuasive to me, might not be persuasive to thee.” Could you talk of a couple concrete examples?
Willer: Sure. And that’s exactly right. So for the last several years, we’ve been interested in how liberals and conservatives approach political persuasion, and how those values that you just enumerated shape the way they make political arguments.
When we ask liberals to make an argument for, say, same-sex marriage that would be persuasive to conservatives, what they overwhelmingly do is make arguments in terms of their own moral values. Equality, fairness, care, protection of people from harm. And then, conservatives do the same thing when we ask them to make arguments that will be persuasive to liberals. They make arguments in terms of their own values, in terms of respect for authority, group loyalty, patriotism, and so on.
The problem is, those arguments that they’re making are exactly the ones that would not be persuasive to the people they’re supposedly targeting for persuasion. When we approach political persuasion, we tend to talk like we’re speaking into a mirror. We don’t persuade so much as we recite our own reasons for having the views that we do. We say, “Oh, why should you support same-sex marriage? Well, let me tell you about why I support same-sex marriage.”
Pesca: Yeah, and it’s not a failing. We’re saying to ourselves, “Well, what’s the best argument?” We define the best argument, probably, as the one that won us over, or the one that hits our buttons. But let’s think about the other guy’s buttons, if you want to ever get anywhere.
I remember one time, I was talking to Ralph Nader, and he was, I don’t know, endorsing some policy and said, “Well, it’s about fairness.” I’m like, “Yes, but that’s a very liberal value.” He said, “I think it’s an everyone value.” I’m like, “Do you?” It doesn’t surprise me that Ralph Nader would think it’s an everyone value, but actually, conservatives aren’t as invested in the concept of fairness as they are in other concepts. Think of a different way to sell this thing to conservatives.
Willer: If you want to sell something to conservatives that you’re thinking about in terms of fairness, often something like patriotism is going to be the more winning basis for the argument.
If people want to be persuasive with their political counterparts, what we suggest might work better, is a class of arguments that we call “morally reframed arguments.” To construct an argument like this, you take the political position you’re advocating for, but rather than connecting it to your own moral values, try to connect it in some logical way to the values of the person that you’re speaking with.
For example, we constructed an argument for same-sex marriage in terms of patriotism and group loyalty. Gay Americans are loyal, proud Americans who contribute to our military and our economy, and deserve the same rights as other Americans. This patriotism-based message turned out to be significantly more effective at convincing conservatives to support same-sex marriage than a more conventional equality-based message.
Pesca: Yeah, and I can think of some that would work the other way. I was just thinking about the debate, “Is Snowden a traitor or not?” Conservatives usually hammer on about their principles. “He was unpatriotic; he was unloyal; he had no respect for authority.” A liberal won’t be persuaded by that.
But if you were to tell the liberal: what he did, it was not fair to his fellow workers, it was not fair to the people in the field, it caused them not to have the maximum protection, maybe that would go further.
Willer: In one of the studies we did, we found that liberals would support high levels of military spending—a classically conservative position—if they were led to think of the military as an engine for promoting social equality and mobility, a domain and society where minorities and the poor can compete on an even playing field, get funding for a college education, and so on. Liberals found that line of argumentation significantly more persuasive than the old patriotism, group-loyalty kind of argument.
Pesca: I want to ask you about fairness as a liberal proposition. Trump does screw up a lot of existing definitions, but he’s always going on about fairness. “You’ve been screwed.” The populist will always talk about fairness, and there are liberal and conservative populists, aren’t there? So how does fairness work in that Trumpian way? What’s working for him?
Willer: I do think that it’s right that you can make persuasive, fairness-based arguments that target either liberals or conservatives, but those persuasive arguments will probably look a little bit different. The kind of unfairness that they would be locating in society would be different.
Liberals tend to be receptive to bases of unfairness that rest in discrimination against identity groups, disadvantaging the poor. Conservatives, in the present political moment, tend to be receptive to fairness arguments that argue that cultural and educated urban elites are enjoying disproportionate rewards from the status quo.
Pesca: It seems to me that Bill Clinton was great at that. He would always at least extend a branch that could be appealing to a conservative. He would say, “You’ve worked hard. You’ve played by the rules, right?” This is order, this is respect for authority. And then from there, he would talk about wanting to spend on his generally liberal policy.
And it seems to me that Hillary Clinton, even though I thought she was making great arguments, didn’t do this as well.
Willer: One of the latent arguments in our research is that first, make a moral argument. You’re better off making a moral argument, and then secondarily, be careful to fit that moral argument to the people that you’re talking to. Because if you don’t, it’s not so much that it’s likely to backfire, it’s more that it’ll just be inert and, at least in our research, just have no persuasive effect.
So I think, first make a morally based argument. We didn’t always see that in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Pesca: Donald Trump seems to have a floor, and no matter what evidence is introduced, that floor is not shrinking. Could it be that all of the evidence introduced is just not speaking to the worldview of those people who most rally around him?
Willer: I think that’s a really interesting analysis. My knee-jerk analysis on the apparent floor to Donald Trump’s support is that it reflects the deeply partisan moment we find ourselves in. Which I think is a part of the story of how Trump got elected, and part of the story of how his support’s not gonna fall below 30.
If you go back to late spring 2016, all of a sudden it becomes clear that he’s probably going to be the winning Republican candidate, and we find support shoots up for him, as everybody kind of wants to support the winner. Then the question was whether Republicans would fall in line behind this very controversial candidate, and consistent with our extremely partisan moment, they did. They did, and he won the election.
But by that same reasoning, we should expect a floor that his approval probably can’t fall beneath. And I’d put it somewhere around 30 to 35 percent.
Pesca: If I had 10 minutes with a Democratic senator, I would say: Read Robb’s research. If the Democrats are on your side, most people who can be persuaded are on your side. He has a very low approval rating, but when you’re asking, “Why doesn’t it go lower?” you need to reframe everything he’s doing in terms of patriotism. Just hammer this, just say, “The reason it offends me, is because I am an American, not a Russian. American, not Russian.” Say that again, and talk about him sullying the election, him dragging the election into the mud. Him getting down and dirty with this.
And I also think it’s a trap that Trump would fall into. He sees himself as a street fighter. He’d probably own up to something like that. And I think if your talking points were more about patriotism and just ruining the purity of whatever America is, you might do a little bit better than just on the facts alone.
Willer: I think that’s exactly right. I think the reason that floor is where it is does have to do with people’s values-based commitment to their team, to their group. But if they saw Donald Trump as opposed to those principles that their group is founded on, as opposed to helping them see those values through in the American political system, than you might find that that support could go significantly lower.