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

— and resuscitate stifled political conversations

It’s nearly impossible to change someone’s views if you appear unwilling to change yours, if you are not curious. So how do you stay curious when voters have atrocious views: If someone is offhandedly telling you who you or your friends can marry, and voting to make their views override your choice of life partner, to hell with them. But then without curiosity you’ve lost your leverage. Below are some techniques — please add yours — to be curious, to purposefully seek out ways to be curious, when you're talking about an issue where you're just not curious whether you'll change your mind.

Experiment with any of the paths below, to be curious about something in the conversation, an exercise that can help you take a step back from the conflicts so you can connect.

Be curious how they feel.

Be curious about their underlying values — wonder if they fit Moral Foundation Theory, or not?*

Be curious about their frame and the metaphor underneath: do they see themselves on a journey, waiting in a line, fighting a battle, struggling with a disease?

Be curious like a newspaper reporter: who, what, when, where and how questions can be helpful, especially around where and when they learned what they learned.**

An honestly asked How would that work out in the world? can be very powerful.

conversation bubbles: red

I find this difficult in real-life conversations. For online chats, it might help to write down a conversation goal on a piece of notepaper: find a way to stay focused on a side-goal that lets your conversation dig deeper before going back to the default of arguing to change minds.

* Chapter 2 of Cognitive Politics explores Moral Foundations Theory: one of the best ways to get curious is asking about someone’s underlying values, and wondering if their values match Moral Foundations Theory or not. I find this exercise a way to basically distract myself from getting angry and anti-curious about offensive political views.

**"Why" questions tend to get you in trouble in politics, since people have often divided the world into good-guys and bad-guys, and reinforcing that doesn't help. "How does that work?" or "When did you learn that? What brought you to that view?" can sometimes open up a conversation.

Stephen Wed, 03/20/2019 - 15:48

Business Insider's article Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's tweet about workers being paid 'less than the value they create' is essentially a restatement of Marx's Labour Theory of Value — here's why that's interesting is so far wrong that it's fascinating:

Twitter post by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Hers is a restatement of Adam Smith, not Marx. Marx said labor created *all* value, denying that saving or management or resources were part of the process; Smith wanted labor (and other factors of production) to be paid the value they create, what AOC says.

We've gone so far to the right we don't even recognize capitalism. If workers were paid fairly for the value of what they created, while savers created productive capital and it got paid fairly, that's capitalism.

And if we were capitalists under Eisenhower, then we are no longer. Savings no longer turn to competitive capital (eg productive factories) but financialized assets, savings become more expensive land-values under houses that earn rent, savings become tools to buy back stocks — pieces of paper not factories. This creates returns without product: no other explanation for how much of our economy is Wall Street staring at it's own bellybutton, uber-profitably, instead of creating jobs that create new wealth.

Now even Business Insider can't tell the difference between a functioning free market and Marxism, because we've left capitalism so far into cronyism, rent-seeking, monopolies and financialization that we've forgotten what free markets (kept free and fair by a functioning government, or they collude to prevent competition, as Smith said long before Marx) that we've forgotten how to advocate for competitive free markets.

I write about framing: it's important to remind people that the words used by Roosevelt and Stalin are not the words we use anymore: Socialism and free-market capitalism have gone through odd convolutions. Many people who want to "make America great again" are nostalgic for the years from Roosevelt through Eisenhower, when idealized capitalism included trust-busting, fair markets, and trying to give everyone a job with dignity and a job that provided a living wage. Even Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are near the center for those years. Watch the way capitalism and free markets and socialism are framed!

Stephen Tue, 03/12/2019 - 19:44

With Michael Cohen’s testimony, we’re seeing something that looks like a scene from a mobster movie: watch Representative Steube (R) try to prove that Cohen paid hush money for Trump but wasn't acting for Trump, or any of countless other bizarre moments. How did we get here? More importantly, how do we create a path for ordinary conservative-minded voters back to conservative values like balancing budgets, serving in the military when called, integrity, law & order?

So, what is an opening that splits the Trump train? Is there a way to start “on the train” and then change directions? Here’s my first draft. I'm wondering if the first sentence, on it's own, leaving the question open without conclusion, might not be the most powerful? Thoughts?

Before Trump stepped on the stage, Washington DC was a swamp. Many of us hoped he would turn that around.

We wondered if the FBI — people who believe in law and order, largely Republicans — hated Trump for deep-state reasons, or because he flagrantly violates the law and pissed off lifetime officers of the law. After Cohen’s testimony, we have an answer.

A lot of politicians seem to want Americans who live together in cities to hate people who live in open spaces, and vice-versa. I want to be on the other side of that. If I don’t like the tv shows you watch, if we disagree about guns — let’s go back to being Americans together anyway.

There aren’t a lot of conservative Republicans left in DC — politicians who balance budgets, who believe that the President should follow the constitution rather than declare an “emergency” when he loses a vote in Congress, who believe in integrity and law and order. There are a few, it’s time to get behind them.

When I look on Fox, I see comments where people are uncomfortable with Trump but not ready to stand:

"Republicans don't like Trump either. Remember he was a Clinton supporter before he decided to run." These need follow-ups like: This is the moment we find out who has backbone. This is no longer an argument over lesser evils. This is just truth or lies. If you are against corruption, stick with being against corruption: don't divide into two teams unless you desire the world divided into two teams.

There are some great Republican messengers

This corruption should not be, and to a small extent is not, partisan:
(Planning to add to this as I find more sources. Let me know what you find!)

Stephen Wed, 02/27/2019 - 16:49

Trump often tries to get moderates to look at the left and say "I'm not one of them." He often trolls us into overreacting. That's kindof a natural part of politics, there's always a big center trying to figure out which side is crazier. From the left-media silo it's not obvious how good Trump is at playing media to make us seem like we are vicious and he merely speaks his mind, but he's good at that.

I think when Trump supporters are jumping around with all caps and just cheering any and everything he does, progressives shouldn't despair, but leverage that: to be more welcoming and less bonkers to any moderates listening to the conversation. That's the time to sound particularly reasonable. I think there are times to expand the Overton window, too — but not talking to ALL CAPS craziness. We talk about a time when left and right didn't hate each other — that's what moderates want, it's vital that the blame for dividing America goes where it belongs, and the left is terrible at staying calm long enough for Trump's violations to stand visible.

So maybe:

I miss when Americans of both parties used to talk to each other. Obama had Republicans in his cabinet. McCain worked with Sanders.

Big money started tearing us apart years ago. There was a moment of hope when Trump claimed he'd drain the swamp and bring Americans together. I hoped he would divide Washington DC from the swamp of lobbyist money. Instead he divided Americans from each other. Many people felt hope, but it was a mistake to trust him. Onwards.

(I never believed Trump would drain the swamp, but did have a tiny hope. It's good to be ready to welcome people who had a bigger hope of that worthy goal — we need to be in solidarity next election.)

Stephen Fri, 02/15/2019 - 17:51

When politics leaves you feeling angry, how do you vent? Who do you vent to? Are they listening? Do you feel heard?

Venting at people who don't already get it usually means you won't be heard and will push people further away: Have you found a way to vent among political friends, and stay curious and open-minded when reaching out to people you disagree with?

Vent to people who agree with you and are no less privileged; echo the anger of people who are under attack

Stephen Cataldo Tue, 01/29/2019 - 15:09

All of us should have at least two goals for the primary in common:

That the primary does not damage the general election. Primaries should vet candidates, expose their weak points so those are old news in the general. But don't go too far. And more than anything, we all need to keep the process fair. Party primaries used to be non-democratic choices by the party; I want democracy in the primary, I want the candidate I support to push for that.

Create an Overton window, together with your opponents. I would like to hear ideas that differ, I would like debate, from "good" to "better." Show the American people the range of reasonable ideas within the Democratic Party. Focus on these ideas — not attacking Trump all the time. Leave America ready to have a reasonable debate, which will leave Trump outside. And while we're here — I want to know your framing strategies, and how you hope to get the Democratic Party on message and clear.

Stephen Sun, 01/27/2019 - 01:27