You may recall that I previously attended the Conservative Persuasion Bootcamp (hereafter, CPB) in Aspen, Colorado as a discussion facilitator and found the material to be very helpful and well presented. When I heard that the event was coming to Glenwood Springs, I jumped at the opportunity to help out again.
Then I realized where Glenwood Springs was relative to Colorado Springs. That was a drag.
Of course, one might, by the existence of this post, surmise that not only did I keep my word, but that the expertise on display at the event was more than worth the hours of semi truck slalom and ‘wintry mix‘.
For the unfamiliar, the previous event recap explains the basic concept of the CPB series: “[finding] respectful and persuasive ways to present [Conservative] views in social situations without watering down beliefs or inviting hostility with tone-deaf arguments.” The seminars are designed and run by a cadre of Colorado-based professionals - Antonette DeLauro Smith, Krista Kafer, Melanie Sturm - in coordination with the Centennial Institute. The Glenwood Springs seminar was coordinated with the help of the Garfield County Republican Women.
The urgency of the need for this kind of instruction is all around us as Conservative Republicans, in electoral results as often as in op-ed sections. Or as Antonette puts it, “all this anxiety [about the future of America] has made us…not as gracious as we usually are.” Her demure description is certainly amusing, but the result of this ungraciousness in the aggregate is not funny at all. The default portrayal of Conservatives these days is lousy with tropes of avarice, waste, bigotry, and xenophobia; it insistently skewers the caricature of indoctrinated moralizers poisonous to the body politic; and it excoriates a shrill cabal of ogreish fanatics who can no longer deny their forthcoming extinction at the hands of progressive triumphalism and consequently resolve to bring down with them as many as possible of the following: poor people, old people, owners of Toyota Priuses, minorities, homosexuals, marijuana users, Muslims, atheists, victims of gun violence, Treasury bondholders and currency speculators, women, immigrants, and (especially) children.
The foregoing is a brutal and insidious false narrative, of course. But while such intolerant agitprop may seem self-evident from an outside perspective, the demonization continues to propagate even as polling data show that the Conservative ‘Silent Majority‘ yet endures, just as it did in the 1970s. The ‘ogre trap’ is one that can be very hard to escape without a clear vision and the right set of tools. That’s where CPB comes in.
The brilliance of the CPB concept is that it prompts attendees to unlearn their more vitriolic habits – encyclopedic legislative and statistical reference, bludgeoning arguments at the level of policy implementation, or ignoring the at-risk groups when considering a significant change in government programs, to name a few – and to instead concentrate the details of their beliefs on answering the larger social motivations of their interlocutors according to the universally held moral values of fair opportunity and compassion for the weak. It’s a beautiful principle, and one that can restore decorum in the marketplace of opinion that nourishes our civil society. But applying that principle to a cynical world of self-centered, dogmatic apparatchiks can be difficult at times, especially when said apparatchiks prefer to ‘debate’ by casting opposition to their (factitious) set of ‘rights’ as enmity towards entire broad strokes of humanity (all the while contriving to deprive others of rights previously held de jure).
Nonetheless, our intrepid instructors asserted that even those situations can be defused and brought on to more emotionally advantageous terrain. But how? This seminar’s set of answers to that question were a tour de force.
- We must not assume. (Antonette) A statement that appears on its surface to inflame may actually, when further questioned, go in a completely unexpected and very informative direction. Only by patience can a ‘Conservative Persuader’ find their counterpart’s true social and moral concerns. And until that center of gravity is reached, attempts to refactor the discussion according to Conservative-friendly philosophies will miss the point.
- Patience in work of the heart. (Melanie) We must put away the notion that it is likely to completely convert a person in one sitting on even one issue. Sometimes there is only time to plant a seed of consideration. Sometimes, even, there is only time to avoid setting back our cause with errant propositions. In any case, the overarching best practice to consider is that the negative space created by a trenchant, open-ended question is a powerful tool to be used early and often.
- Seize the framing initiative. (Krista) Humanize our positions using story and metaphor, and resist provocative redirects by pivoting back to the frame of compassion and fairness. Every proposed policy has a human face whose story illustrates that policy’s success or failure. Hoard those stories and images as jealously as any scholarly paper. They are just as powerful if not more.
- Evangelize adjudication. (Melanie) The signal of useful policy debate is lost amid the noise of histrionic edge cases and stentorian black-and-white imputations. When fringe elements co-opt one side of an issue and provoke their opposite numbers to extremism for the alternative, they marginalize those who would rather engage the complexity of the issue in more common details. Talking at length about the uncomfortable applications and nuances of moral and ethical principles is difficult, and may not even yield a satisfactory solution. But that is the more honest form of democratic problem solving, when sloganeering and badgering turn against us as they are wont to do.
- Prevent infighting. (Krista) Conservatives and Libertarians of all the various stripes are allowing political disagreements to harden into cultural acrimony, even when their respective bailiwicks are largely in agreement. A split benefits no one but the shared opposition. The same rules of patience, empathy, and appeal to common values are as true with fine points of contention within the ‘big tent’ as they are out in the wild.
I just want to point out that, as you can tell from the above, Krista, Antonette, and Melanie did an outstanding job presenting the material in breadth and depth, primed by their hyperlocal empathy for the audience of fellow Coloradans. The group recaps after each part of the (newly redesigned) practical exercise saw each presenter seamlessly switch not only between demonstrations of active listening and objective advocacy, but also between emphasis on the principles as a whole and compassion for audience members’ prior frustrations with trying to share their views. I don’t believe my use of the word ‘heroine’ in the post title is much of an overstatement: CPB visibly brought the audience not only knowledge, but, in my opinion, hope.
Of course, on Thursday night this meant that the time allotted was not enough for the questions and concerns fomented. I was no exception. My reactions follow.
- Dr. Brooks’s original talk emphasized the idea that money and its (re)distribution should never be employed as a moral argument towards its own end. Failure to observe this rule is what exposes Conservative advocates to accusations of greed and selfishness. Solid advice. But what happens when the opposition reverses the effect, using guilt-driven exhortations for ‘necessary’ resources? Even if Conservatives avoid complaints about spending, they remain vulnerable to the implication that anyone who will not be coerced to spend ‘for the children!’ is the most miserly of all. (This is happening in Colorado.) How can we stop this?
- So many unfounded accusations of fantastically low moral character are made in politics, when even the most cursory examination would show that the accused simply has no motive to commit the dastardly deeds in question. For example: ‘Republicans just want to cut the budget so they can lower taxes for their rich friends while the poor get screwed’. How, then, are said friends planning to allocate their assets when a lack of improved economic policy causes so much civil unrest that the poor state of physical security in society begins to disrupt the risk management picture for American capital investment at the level of aggregate financial markets? In other words, the same question works for breaking false narratives as is used for solving crimes: Cui bono? Who benefits? If it’s true that Republican Senators support, for example, punching kittens, explain what they gain from doing that! If the explanation doesn’t make sense (last I checked, there’s no bill in committee for a tax on kitty health insurance premiums), it plants a seed of persuasion that can be cultivated over time.
I wanted to include those observations as they are of concernt to me, but they are still only a part of the larger theme of my reactions to this event. I see from the current CPB format a bigger teaching opportunity – and the risk that can come from neglecting it.
CPB events tie off the curriculum at a convenient (and uplifting) stopping point, but the audience might not realize the personal investment it takes to achieve the presenters’ level of rhetorical athleticism. Lack of practice and overconfidence puts CPB neophytes at risk to
get dragged into deep water and drowned have a conversation that overwhelms their command of the idiom. Having been ‘embarassed’ by ‘trying to be touchy-feely like them‘, the erstwhile ‘Conservative Persuader’ could easily revert to an even more acrimonious level of hostile arguing – playing right into liberal hands.
However, as someone inured to obstinacy, condescension, and emotional manipulation, I refuse to accept that Conservatives are doomed to get affectively hustled by slick progressive raconteurs. There are three concepts whose addition to the CPB curriculum I believe would create a complete understanding of the persuasion landscape and prepare people fully for complex emergent political discussions. (I will outline them here, but I don’t have answers to all of the questions that they raise. I am sure that CPB presenters could give comprehensive answers, or at least provide guidance for further investigating the matters independently.)
First, we will consider the backfire scenario previously outlined. I describe that sort of response as a hostile counter-framing. For example, perhaps I argue in favor of reducing Federal involvement in public education on the grounds that it is unfair to overprioritize standardization and make funding contingent on performance according to the same. I cite the anecdotal example (having the academic and statistical reporting in reserve) of my own choice to homeschool (with district support through school choice) my 6-year-old daughter, saying that I did so grounded in the fact that I know my own child’s needs. I continue that I don’t want her educational experience beholden to a union teacher and the travails of a checkered student body and ideologically motivated school board, much less to some Scantron test instituted by fiat from Washington and even further tying the hands of everyone subordinate to them. Why would the government pay lip service to the uniqueness and preciousness of our children, but then try to institute top-down ‘progressive’ standards that disrupt existing communities and fail to support parents who pursue multiple options for schooling? Resolved that I love my child and want only the best education for her, isn’t my choice a legitimate one?
That all seems very relatable. But what happens if the answer to my last question is a flat “No”? What if I’ve walked directly into a counteroffensive screed of religious cult extremists and horrific child neglect, basically setting myself up to be unmercifully tarred with the same brush of underachievement and defective socialization that my opponent is using to paint the picture of their cautionary tale against the evils of the very thing I was trying to sell. Oops.
Mind, this scenario isn’t necessarily ‘game over’ at this juncture. Perhaps I’ve come prepared with the imagery (and citations and data) to strike back with a horror show of ham-handed federal misappropriation and administrative incompetency, and its human cost in learning outcomes, life trajectories, and acute instances of failure. But perhaps not. The danger is there, and to deny it would be foolish.
To introduce the second point, let’s consider an additional detail from this scenario. Regardless of otherwise undefined belief structures, it does no good to invoke the inalienable right of parents to exert control over their children’s education if the object of this invocation is vehemently opposed to parental intrusion into the purview of professional educators. It is similarly useless to reference the historical importance of religious freedom (regarding, say, marriage, or perhaps employer healthcare mandates) when speaking with someone who passionately advocates freedom from religion. At that point, it doesn’t matter how well-researched or patently Constitutional your point might be: it is inimical to a core belief of the other person, and therefore it is evil. And so are you; thanks for playing.
I call this risk iceberg extremism, and I’m honestly unsure how to handle it. Just as the majority of an iceberg is below the surface of the ocean, there is always a risk that a given policy position, no matter how innocuous or mundane, is informed by a viscerally deep fault line of belief. I fear that once that iceberg finds its way into the shipping lanes, there might not be any way around it.
It gets worse. We celebrate that as citizens of a free country, Americans obey the laws of the land, but we are allowed to uphold a private morality and epistemology of our own choosing. At the community level, we are further allowed to form affinity groups around shared beliefs, and if public opinion and resources allow, we may even pass legislation reflecting those beliefs. However, the trouble with this system is the distinct risk that promulgated community beliefs will diverge significantly from existing legal precedents, and even from the philosophies that underpinned those precedents.
It is safe to say that everywhere in political history, the resolution of these divergences is factually uncomfortable for multiple parties. And today, we live in a time where beliefs are promulgating to the level of legislative (and judicial) activism that are headed outside the boundaries of the Constitution itself. What do you say to someone who would in fact use the political system you share to supplant its founding principles with their own? While it is often possible for such virulent disdain towards opposing and/or moderate alternatives to discredit the extremist position, it is never a guarantee.
In fact, after the generations-long decline of traditional family and moral values, many personal icebergs have actually originated from the passive enacting and indoctrination of substitute values that are anti-religious, anti-family, anti-business, anti-liberty, anti-opportunity, anti-life, and frankly anti-American. Of course, in polite conversation these days, most people simply call them ‘progressive values’. Right there is the upshot of this social devolution, and the third and last concept I want to propose. We see that degeneracy, narcissism, and government worship have transformed into the most culturally prestigious ethos available. I know no better way to describe the approach to investigating this disturbing effect than as social epidemiology.
It is now modernly considered ‘progressive’ to destroy, or be complicit to the destruction of, American institutions. Progressivism calls this destruction ‘improvement’ or ‘evolution’ or ‘equality’. If anyone should have the temerity to point out an instance where the progressive agenda has actually debased and distorted the state of affairs, an inflamed tide of bilious, internalized structural trauma rushes forth from the afflicted and their
miasma milieu to dispatch the offender with the ferocious efficiency of an immune response. Impassioned social tautologies and accusations of preposterous moral turpitude ensue. Thanks for playing.
It happened right under our noses, even though we all know better: a cabal of determined con men (and women) got everyone to believe that they were championing open and enlightened discourse, while they were actually just frightening everyone into silence ahead of the reality that the oligarchic governmentality to which they entitled themselves was in fact completely incoherent. Now no one knows what to say or how their personal ontologies got twisted into such grotesque dysfunction, and the informed and self-examined are a persecuted minority.
Hope still remains. Persuasion, along with setting an example in our own lives, are the only ways to heal the progressive pandemic. I feel fortunate to have discovered CPB as a gateway to a more hopeful way of getting through to people that there is a better way to live our lives. While the opposition as I have described it may be fierce, our advantage is that our message is far more potent. we gain much more on the margin than they ever could with each person that becomes connected and energized for personal liberty and equality of opportunity. All we can do as Conservatives is keep the faith and remain well-informed; knowledge empowers conviction and makes straight the path of persuasion and, ultimately, friendship.