5 Lessons from the Conservative Persuasion Bootcamp Series

This post can also be found on the Centennial Institute ’76 blog. I’m a contributor there now!

It happened right under our noses, even though we all knew 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, maleficent self-parody. Worse, the informed and self-examined are a persecuted minority for voicing a worldview outside the orthodoxy proclaimed from the ivory tower.

The Conservative Persuasion Bootcamp (CPB) was created to combat this dysfunction. After examining the problem and how Conservative Americans relate to it, I’d like to present a few ideas to make sharing our Conservative views in social dialogue—with no capitulation or watering down—a more fruitful proposition than it has previously been.

We must stop the slick raconteurs of the Left from railroading our ideas into hateful emotional slanders. Complaining about illogical or low-information voters won’t help: we must ourselves adapt. We can’t cover the ‘how’ of an issue’s history and policy dynamics without preparing for the ‘why’ of how our solution maps to basic morality. Before we can win anyone over to our cause, we must begin by proving to ourselves that the moral truth of our positions can touch any person in any uncomfortable corner of any issue. When cold logic falls flat, we rise above on the moral updraft of our stories.

It’s a tall order, to be sure. Here are 5 key principles for getting it done.

  1. What people say is often different from what concerns them. Irritating sound bites may originate from hardened ideologues, but most of the people we hear repeating them are far from dyed-in-the-wool. We can question inflammatory statements without ideological condemnation, exposing a slogan’s lack of substance or a policy’s disconnect from the needs of constituents. Separated from rhetoric, a person’s true concerns for their future create shared space for a more authentic conversation.
  2. Remember that positions come from values and end in stories. Voting citizens are the end users of government. In today’s complex society, the path to policy buy-in runs not through justification of implementation, but through narrative of experience. Politicians favor anecdotal evidence because it humanizes an issue and reminds polarized voters that policies have concrete, visible effects on their fellow citizens. When a proposal definitively impacts the life story of a real person, anyone privy to the story feels an empathy that very strongly reflects or antagonizes their personal values.
  3. Re-imagine every debate so that our position supports and appeals to universal values. There are only two values that every person can be counted on to share. One is compassion for the weak and less fortunate, moving us to act; the other is fairness in the rule of law and other structural circumstances, ensuring the integrity of our outcomes as they manifest from our choices. The Left hijacks these words to point to their own policy objectives, but we can call out and negate the untruth by claiming the moral heritage of our own policies, couching them in universal ideals.
  4. Be prepared for pushback. The story we find heartwarming could be turned around on us as dreadfully harmful to some other everyman of our counterpart’s choosing. Worse, our protagonist’s happy ending might leverage ideas that offend previously-hidden core beliefs of our audience. What might be fair in the eyes of American legal tradition could nonetheless be inimical to principles in which our audience may not even realize they are heavily invested. We don’t allow these encounters with hostile reframing or iceberg beliefs to deprive us of momentum. They can in turn be questioned and redirected to our advantage.
  5. Always begin with, and pivot back to, compassion and fairness. It doesn’t matter what question is asked, nor whether we have an ideal answer ready. We never answer a loaded question when it is instead possible to make the questioner answer for asking it. First impressions (perhaps only seven seconds) are paramount, and they must bespeak principled leadership and universally accessible morality. For reasonable people, complicated questions need not be answered all at once, and even the deadliest ‘gotcha’ has acceptable solutions. We’re not taking the bait. Trading space for time, we always refer first to shared morals, even if obliquely. Shared morals give purchase to the sensitive conversations that engender compassionate solutions.

Skilled communicators use these methods to build a bridge from their own perspective and solutions to the deeply felt needs of their audience. They know that leaders don’t fight abstract problems. Leaders create a movement with a purpose to help people, and thus mobilize those people to help themselves and the movement; they force their opposition to portray an opposer of people and purpose. In business, countless product design and marketing case studies illustrate these principles. We Conservatives, even with a proven and still-venerated sociopolitical legacy, must likewise embrace a strategy of values-based persuasion, lest we allow what we hold dear to become the political American Express.

We know the alternative is unacceptable: repeated victimization at the hands of liberal demagoguery. When we cede the moral high ground, leftist social engineering becomes a brilliant bellwether for #ProgressiveEquality! by default, and the Conservative position again gets tarred with the blood libels of greed, callousness, bigotry, elitism, and militarism. As we mourn, the body politic meanwhile discovers their Mandate™ to be everything they thought they were preventing and more. Sound familiar?

The professionals who created CPB—John Andrews, Krista Kafer, Melanie Sturm, Rich Sokol, and Antonette DeLauro Smith—brought us this visionary program to demonstrate a better way to evangelize the compassion, efficacy, and accessibility of Conservative principles. They want us to recognize, as they did, that the way we frame political conversations is key to making those conversations show the robust elegance of Conservative thought and planting its seeds in the hearts of our friends, acquaintances, and society.


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