I've heard a lot of attacks on Biden, "He should get out," with harsh lists of everything he's ever done wrong and nothing he's done right.

Imagine you liked Biden and had half a mind to vote for him in the primary. People are trying to convince you to change your vote, and also stay energized after the primaries. How well does the comment below work; what would you change? [Cognitive Politics is about communications approaches, not about particular candidates.]

I went to college in tiny Delaware with Biden as our Senator. I often disagreed with him but he worked hard and along with some serious bad choices most of us have now heard many times (which yes are serious bad choices) he also did a lot of good work too, and worked hard — his efforts to fight some aspects of militarization and Central America death squads were quality work and important — and he gave a damn any time his privilege let him see what was actually going on.

Back then he was more blunt and real and human than any other politician I knew of: he didn't wear a fake face for the voters. And now he is a human being who really needs to retire. I mean that more as a criticism of the rest of us than him: I hope I never decide I'm past my prime, but it's going to happen, and I hope people around me don't let me do to myself what Biden's never-retire-supporters are putting him through in front of the whole country. Even if you find his politics perfectly match yours, even if he was a great candidate ten years ago, this isn't going to end well for anyone.

This approach is a "steel argument," the opposite of a paper tiger — make the opposing case strong enough that every reader feels heard, with a feeling of mutual exploration instead of point-scoring. Thoughts? Ways to improve it?

Stephen Wed, 02/12/2020 - 06:09

Say politics is important to you and you don't want to silence yourself around family,

but talking politics at Thanksgiving or other holidays might ruin dinner,

what are some creative alternatives?

I've started leaving alternatives in the comments; please brainstorm and join in.

Stephen Sun, 11/17/2019 - 13:12
I swallowed some propaganda. For many years, I've said that eating cattle causes methane. This blog is about communications, not meat eating. If you are conversing with people across partisan divides, in these days of heavy propaganda and few gatekeepers, I wonder if it would help to share when swallow propaganda? PS: This one caught me, which is an interesting experience. My allies sometimes goof too. I believe I wrote that the most important online action was opposing the adult left going after a smirking teenager, one nation against one teen
Stephen Fri, 11/08/2019 - 16:04

One of the leading progressives strikes me as talking to the progressive base; another is speaking progressive ideals to everyone who will listen.

These tend to be lumped together, but I think they are totally different approaches, and the difference very important. If you want to change the world, vote for candidates who speak their values (your values) with clarity to everyone, not just to you and the base. Both these approaches are opposites of the Clinton's Third Way — which unfortunately is where the analysis usually stops.

Even better would be attempting a conversation — which has to be somewhat faked when talking to a million people at once, but you can try, and people can tell when you try.


Trump was particularly good at creating a sense of conversation: people without college degrees living in places that are being left behind by the modern economy felt like he was talking to them, when no one else was. Yeah, obviously he was lying — no one else even bothered to talk to them.

Beto's "Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47" is a great example of talking only to your base, showing attitude and loyalty to the home-team while locking the front door so no one else will join you.

Stephen Tue, 11/05/2019 - 16:39

— live draft, early comments welcome —

Communications techniques encourage us to "reflect" and "agree." What I'm observing is that Trump said “Tens of thousands of Kurds died fighting ISIS. They died for us and with us and for themselves,” and a few weeks later betrayed them, leaving thousands more to die at the hands of our ally who we promised we would constrain. At a moment where Trump has left our allies to die, callously, suddenly — how do you "agree" today?

Personally, I thought Trump was going to be a disaster, but recent events strain my very low expectations. I think that might be where to focus right now: Be very careful to help previous Trump voters separate from Trump, rather than feel under attack along with him. Aim to find ways to reflect that no one is really happy today, no one is getting what they want.

I think the "agree" right now is to validate that people who voted for Trump weren't expecting this, we weren't envisioning that America would betray allies who fought alongside our troops. Most Americans — both those who voted for Trump and those who voted against — expected that opposition to ISIS was a shared value, and that fighting alongside our troops as an ally counted for something. We were all surprised together. It's time for America to come back together.

Resources to Share…

Conservative view:…

Stephen Cataldo Thu, 10/10/2019 - 19:14

Dog whistle politics has changed. In the past, a "dog whistle" was when a politician said something that his supporters would know was racist, but centrists wouldn't hear it. Only supporters, only the target demographic that the speaker intended to mobilize, heard the dog whistle.

Today, slogans like "All Lives Matter" are dog whistles intended not to be heard by the core audience. Instead of being heard by the voters that a politician is trying to mobilize, they are heard by opponents. Only your opponents hear the dog whistle — which gets your opponents dump their anger on your target demographic. People saying "All Lives Matter" feel good about themselves, about not seeing race. And progressives get angry at them. There's no faster way to drive them to circle their wagons around Trump than to have progressives yelling at them. That is the point: that is why a politician trying to win the next election keeps bringing up little bits of xenophobic and racist garbage — he is campaigning, he is setting traps, we are falling for those traps.

Social media makes this particularly effective: if someone is unhappy about something in their lives, shares a grumpy post that casually tosses some grumpiness about that problem, and then faces holy hell from progressives — it drives them to the person who put the dog whistle in their hands and encouraged them to blow it.

It used to be that politicians blew dog whistles: now they use social media to encourage their followers to blow the dog whistles, without being able to hear them.

Next in series: How racist trolling wins votes from people who don't want to be racist

Stephen Cataldo Tue, 08/13/2019 - 20:44
I don't entirely have an answer to the question "How Do Racists and Anti-Racists Use Group-ism at Election Time?" — if you have pieces of the puzzle, add them to the comments. I recommend looking at What Ails the Right Isn’t (Just) Racism: An authoritarian fear of difference best explains the intolerance sweeping the Republican Party. The short answer to my question: enough Americans
Stephen Tue, 08/13/2019 - 18:49

I watched good folks start to tear into each other when this window decal made its way to a political facebook group.

I'm guessing: this image is seen as wildly racist to some, and a silly joke about lousy ex-boyfriends to others.

And there is a big danger: when people don't think they're sharing something racist, and then get accused of it, they tend to feel pushed out, not called in. This is creating, over and over, a feeling of rejection among a large part of the country.

This provocation is done very much on purpose:

1) Politically active people (provocateurs) are aiming to get the target audience — especially non-politicized voters — to blow dog whistles. The tactic is strongest when the people blowing the dog whistle don't realize they're doing it, don't hear the dog whistles or intend any harm. An example is getting people saying the phrase "All Lives Matter" — which free of any context, just those three words, sounds pure and innocent and idealistic.

(2) Then the target audience face intense anger from progressives.

(3) Then the accidental-dog-whistlers get angry at the people who yelled at them. Now they are politicized.

That is 2016. That is the "deplorables" thing — millions of people were really angry about being called racist and not knowing what the accusation was about. Fox and similar media worked hard to worsen the confusion, very much on purpose taking Hillary Clinton's quote out of context. Progressives didn't work hard to welcome back the people who felt confused and offended.

How do we build solidarity among decent people, when we face this tactic? (I have no idea about the originators of the sticker — I feel sure that if a million people see this sticker, some are going to see a racial overlay and some simply are not) but the conflicts here are the same as the broader pattern, and we certainly see it happening on purpose often enough.

I feel scared to say that as a community we don't seem to have developed ways to invite each other in, even among allies who intend to be anti-racist.

Could your community discuss racist implications of that window decal in a way that people reading the discussion would feel like "I want to join those people, I feel inspired by those people"? How would that work?

Exercise: Imagine you went on a year long news fast, and came back to hear people saying "All Lives Matter." That sounds sweet and gentle and heartfull, right? How would you want your community to bring you up to speed?

PS: One group that is inspired to be that kind of community, working on strategies to reach across partisan divides and generate understanding, to learn why we misinterpret each other, is: SMART Politics. A small group from Cognitive Politics and SMART Politics may soon start creating "Rapid Responses" to current issues that combine the best communication techniques with social media — speak up if you'd like to volunteer and co-create.

Learn more techniques progressives will need to deal with to win elections: online at the outrage–>anger–>reaction cycle or read "Disinfect Festering Racism," Chapter 5 of Cognitive Politics (p90).

Stephen Tue, 08/13/2019 - 13:22

Cognitive Politics is about communications techniques. This blog looks at how we share outrage on social media, an exercise intended to be shared with the Smarter Politics community.

My friends are asking "When is the President going to be held accountable?"

Trump's America isn't what I ever thought America would be.

I'm angry in solidarity with you. SMART started because anger wasn't winning us elections, wasn't keeping people like Trump out of office.

These are dangerous times for many people — we need to be careful: quotes like the above only move us in the right direction, only move towards winning the next election, which is the only way Trump will be held accountable, when they increase solidarity.* When people who felt abandoned by neo-liberal de-industrialization, by a culture that doesn't feel familiar, or watching friends addicted to opioids, when Trump gives them some group to blame, how do we not contribute to separation?

Okay SMART, here's the exercise for the comments: if you feel a desire to share quotes like Anne Frank's, how do you do it so that it is welcoming, a call-in rather than a call-out? How do you get conservatives on your feed (maybe they believe in balancing budgets, or serving when called, or family values) to shake themselves out of the frog-in-boiling-water that comes from Trump slowly turning up hate, and liberals participating in dividing us-into-them?

How would you introduce this quote on your feed so that moderate conservatives felt like you and they were Americans together? Or at least, if they commented against you, moderates watching the interaction would not witness a left-right bar-fight, but would feel like that the people upset by Anne Frank's quote have stepped out of history's arc of the moral universe.


* Also, solidarity among wavering progressives — but not burn-out.

Stephen Cataldo Mon, 08/12/2019 - 12:12

The spin on the Mueller Report is overwhelming: not just whether Trump is guilty, but even simply what did Mueller find: a lot of us are watching only soundbites. What communication techniques can help? What should progressives be sharing?

Question: what is the best short video, article and tweet (one of each) to share about the Mueller Report, that will help politically disinclined TV watchers say "that's not what I saw" when Mueller is described as having found nothing?

My intended goal here is to find resources that will reach people who don't already agree with you, and have short attention spans — communications techniques probably call for either a simple and clear observation, or a messenger who will be believed by your intended audience, though if you have another communication technique in mind, please say it!

Recommendation: When sharing on social media, try not to add tribal markers: words whose fundamental meaning is "I told you so" or "My team was right!" will distract from an observation, and make your partisan views into the messenger. Instead, try something like "I saw this and found it interesting. What do you think?"

Stephen Thu, 07/25/2019 - 10:49

Do you feel that "the other side" listens to facts? Or that facts don't work?

Let's look at a fact, and consider ways we might react:

A pig is as intelligent as a dog

There, you’ve heard the fact. Are you vegan now, or at least done eating pork? Why not?

If you can answer that question, it might be a first step to more effective conversations with Trump supporters.

This article is not officially about vegetarianism, but an experiment to step through and learn from how we react to facts that disturb our personal stories.

We’ll explore when facts work — or don’t — plus team identities, a bit of George Lakoff's framing, and getting unsatisfied Trump voters to take their first budge.

facts create pressure, either forward or backlash

So — How do facts work? How do they fail? — for you?

A pig is as intelligent as a dog

Slow down and consider how you react...

Do you believe it? Reject it?

How does that make you feel? Do the words open your heart and help you feel connected, or close your heart? Feel anything or nothing?

Do you ask yourself, “Is that really true?” … and then never follow up or seek more information?

If you hear that fact once, have you stopped eating pork?

Not me. I did not hear the fact once and immediately absorb it and adjust my actions to the fact.

So, facts don't work on me. Why are we surprised that facts don’t work in politics?

Resisting the Facts

If we go from "a pig is as intelligent as a dog" to "you are deplorable for eating meat," guess what? We'll have a tiny group of activists screaming at a larger body of people who come to dislike the people screaming at them. Messages will be lost to team identities: the noble vegan resistance to deplorable meat eaters. Outside the “resistance,” people are cranky and wish the whole conversation would go away — and don't change their diet. Nor their vote. Familiar?

Conversation Frames

George Lakoff talks about framing an issue: taxes might be an affliction you need relief from, or they might be membership fees you are proud to pay.

But what about framing conversations?

What is the frame of your conversation itself? Are you a combatant, firing facts like artillery shells to batter your opponent’s position? A teacher, lecturing a student? A student, challenging a teacher or authority figure who is wrong? A doctor, giving a prescription from above? A judge sentencing the deplorable criminal? A student talking to another student, sharing something cool you just found out about? Something else?

Exercise: How would you frame our conversation, if I say “A pig is as intelligent as a dog”? Describe the metaphor of the conversation that you imagine, teachers, students, bosses, doctors, judges???

Integrating with Partisan Politics: Tracing Your Own Reactions

I’d like everyone reading this to try the following exercise, which I think will help teach skills relevant for partisan politics.

Exercise: Watch this short video — I admit the first half is not the easiest watch, but it's just five minutes long. Keep your focus meditative on how you are responding to the information, not on the issue at hand. Put aside any thought of changing your actions, and just meditate on yourself, on how you absorb, ignore, resist or reject the facts presented in the video.

(You might also want to notice the video uses a lot of techniques progressives should be using: it assumes the best of everyone. People doing the wrong thing are not deplorable, merely not-yet-informed. They've tried to be open and welcoming.)

After watching, step away from computer, maybe step outside. Meditate on your own reactions to the facts that might be hard to absorb: write them down. What do you feel? Inspired, guilty, angry at me for exposing you to something you don’t want to know? Avoidant? How do you identify? Are we on the same team; am I an outsider for saying this? All of these, back and forth? What else?

Take your notes and hold on to them. If someone voted for Trump along with their parents and spouse, and then they hear Trump did something not so great with Russia (( that even they know, deep down, they don’t agree with )) — they’ll feel pressure, cognitive dissonance. The facts will intrude into story that they enjoy. Where do we go from here? How do we turn the pressure that facts create into an engine for change, not backlash? How could people reach you? How do facts cause you to resist?

Lessons & Possible Techniques

My experience: you have to go slow so people can absorb a new idea.

Avoid frontal assaults. Expose people to facts you want them to absorb sideways: in a movie, in an activity where you share a goal (not where you are an opponent). Find ways to have conversations — try asking, actively listening, agreeing — be in the same community, not anti-Trump vs pro-Trump. And then know what you want: have a very small goal, imagine a thousand mile journey and figure out the first step. Do you know some very first steps you might aim for, when talking with conservatives? What do you want at the end of a short conversation? Really focus on creating a single achievable step: not a miraculous thousand mile journey, nor a hopeless situation where you launch a barrage with no option for them to do but dig in and duck while you reload with another fact-barrage. Find the one first step. Let’s go back to lessons from advocates for pigs:

The vegetarian activists behind Meatless Mondays believe it is deeply, fundamentally wrong for us to cage and kill animals just for dinner. There's been a long evolution of communication techniques: what used to be an angry screed of "you are caging, torturing and killing an animal as intelligent as your pet dog" has transformed into (cue optimistic, gentle music) "Why not try Meatless Mondays?!"

Facts Open Hearts, or Backlash

Let's say the fact makes you uncomfortable: for this blog-example, imagine your starting point is a desire to not change your diet and a desire not to think about the mind of animals who become meat. What next => Does that cause action? Resistance?

For most people, resistance comes first. This is a great moment to look at the spectrum of allies:

Spectrum of Allies — see the Social Media Guide for Progressives

When facts intrude on the way we imagine the world, they create pressure. In the chart above, shifts from disagreement to agreement are a different direction, take a different approach, then shifts between apathy and action. Facts press people who don't see the world as you do to shift towards your view; towards the left in the chart. We can react to pressure in different ways: going along, resisting, doubling-down, and backlash are all options. Piling on more and more facts can backfire. Instead, empowerment, community, hope and connection can help release the pressure towards allyship.

When I hear a fact I don’t want to hear, one instinct is to treat the fact like enemy artillery: to duck. If I encounter it again and again, I dig defensive trenches deeper and deeper. Every time I encounter the idea, I'm a little more dug in, and hear it less. The Resistance to Trump encounters this a lot: the more accusations against Trump, the more dug in his supporters become, even some who heartily voted against him in the primaries.
People often already have the facts: they’re busy ducking, and the more facts, the more ducking. We have to change approaches.

This is vital in Trump-era politics. We may somewhat agree on facts already: Trump voters know he is arrogant, breaks the rules, will fight dirty to win — you don't have to convince them of that. They already feel “pressure” — they already feel a barrage of facts, a lot of cognitive dissonance that the man they wish was their savior disappoints them over and over. But he’s still the team leader even when he disappoints. No single artillery shell “fact” will do anything but make them duck again, exercising the "duck!" neural pathways.

So we ought to be done with facts quickly: we might want to focus on one or two at a time, but the big goal is to get people’s hearts back open; to remind them of the country they believe in when their hearts are open. When our facts build up pressure to change views, the key is not more pressure but making sure that the pressure releases forward.

The Step After the Fact: Action? Resistance?

The folks at the Humane Society have visited farms or watched these videos, and are horrified that factory farming abuses continue. They are as burnt out as as Democrats watching America vote for Trump: they've decided that small steps are the best starting point. Here’s a simple pledge, an action you can take without any big changes in your life, sign up! Meatless Monday Pledge — check it out, maybe sign up!

So what do you think about that? Is that do-able? Hey, Earth Day / Earth Month is almost over — I would be excited to do this with you. If this wasn't a public blog, if you're one of my real-life friends, I would love to share a meal with you, come to a potluck at my house. Let's make one little Monday a meatless Monday. If you're tired of animal rights videos, MeetUp is full of vegetarian restaurant outings, a great place to meet people and get more information, lots more fun than reading blogs — find a group!

Exercise: How does that request to sign up feel? Did you do it? If so, do you (like me) find that facts build up pressure, and actions, even small actions, relieve that pressure while giving it direction?

For me, taking a tiny action helps make the fact seem more real — now {{ you, me and the fact }} are all in the same community, the same reality. Is it similar for you? If you're moving forward even a tiny step, the pressure is going forward; no forward step and the pressure becomes a backlash, something we've seen on a massive scale in the last few years.

Techniques: This style of small action step or request is the last step of Nonviolent Communication, and often a great way to scale down large political disagreements.

What is the "Meatless Monday" of getting people to reconsider Trump?

What actions make the facts real — without requiring an identity-change after hearing one fact?

What would this look like for politics? Imagine a person who voted for Trump, maybe their parents and spouse voted for Trump, and they have a sense of integrity: what is a small thing they could do, not life-changing, not difficult or challenging, that acknowledges and makes real one little fact — pointing them in a direction where facts can be absorbed and then the pressure released, without asking much at once?

Exercise: Look at some recent issues that have troubled you, regarding integrity and Trump. Come up with the smallest ask you can for conservatives. Something you can ask for as a fellow citizen of the same country, together. Please add it to the comments!

If you'd like to volunteer on a project, be the organizer who collects these ideas, and we'll help you get them online and in front of many people.

The core of this blog post based on Framing a Compassionate World: Challenges and Limits, from Cognitive Politics, page 16.
Stephen Cataldo Thu, 04/25/2019 - 23:00

Have you read the Mueller Report? Democrats wanted a silver bullet. They keep letting themselves get trolled. Republicans are mostly celebrating — but not every one. Mueller's investigation led to 34 people and 3 companies convicted or pled guilty and no strong evidence that the Trump campaign worked directly with the Russians. For most Republicans, this is a celebration — a few law and order Republicans are horrified with the corruption Mueller did find. What do you think?

To me, if you're a Democrat, and you're sad that there's no proof that your President colluded with the Russians, what the fuck? Mueller found a ton of corruption: shouldn't you feel some relief that maybe Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen's horrifying testimony is as bad as it gets, thank God? Democrats should be celebrating that our worst fears aren't proven.

if you're a Republican, you gave the country an administration rife with corruption but not treason at the highest levels —are you celebrating?

Here's a post from the GOP side that speaks to me:

Stephen Tue, 03/26/2019 - 10:08