How to Argue with a Right-Winger

It’s a sad and ominous fact that America has separated itself into two political worlds, Right World and Left World. It’s no longer akin to a slide-rule, where everyone basically had the same general idea but then differed on how to get there. No. We live in two separate bubbles – and the area of overlap shrinks more everyday. A big part of actually being successful when arguing with a Right Winger is sticking as much as possible to that shared space in the Venn Diagram of social reality (like we both enjoy microbreweries or some such thing). I know from my own personal political journey that Left Wing arguments fall flat – they just don’t mesh – with Right Wingers, and Right Wing arguments seem either ignorant or oddly disjointed to those of us on the Left.

The striking thing is that the underlying anxiety of the Right Wing is basically the same as on the Left; the difference is that the Left blames a rapacious economic system, while the Right Wing blames the Left Wing, confusing a whole host of issues and ideas in a terrible morass. And that’s really what you should seek to do when “arguing with a Right Winger”.

How have we gotten here? Well the notion that the Left is the problem dates back to Truman and the GOP’s endless struggle to remain relevant. It really dates back to economic arguments German academics where having in the 1930’s, but I don’t think we need to go there right now. Frankly the driving engine behind this divisive political landscape is GOP politicians seeking office and the tendencies of corporations to pursue profit quite literally at any cost, as long as it’s not too painful financially. Corporate friendly policies have attracted very little actual voter support; it has to be stocked by pandering to Right Wingers.

There are many different types of right-wingers, ranging from the Libertarian Gunsexual to the Mormon Housewife to the rare and exotic Kissinger-esque Neoconservative. There are so many more: the Conspiracy Theorist, the Christian Moral, and the Busy Busy Businessman. It’s important to keep in mind that Right Wingers, as a rule, are really responding to what’s going on in their own heads. The argument pathway you would take with a Mormon Housewife is very different from the what you might say to the Kissinger Conservative. Remember, conservatism is about fear and anger and suspicion, in a word, emotion. That’s its appeal, and if its not that it’s greed and selfishness. Your job is to get your opponent thinking.

Right-wingers are not “dumb”. In fact, I would say that in a certain sense, they are more clever then the rest of us. They are very sensitive and, practically speaking, well trained by the Fox News/Conservative Internet Bubble. They will have punchy facts that you will not have heard. They will have folksy arguments and metaphors which might even be charming. And they will have, in their heads, a script with which to argue with you.

Here’s the weakness. Abstract argument is weak; so weak in fact that you will have a job talking them through it (I almost feel that this is the root of the problem in itself; how to get a conservative to listen to your entire rationale). Point out logical inconsistencies, like if you are worried about Big Government, why do you support the same people who support the Patriot Act?

Don’t categorise them, nor allow them to categorise yourself. Avoid labels and proper nouns at all costs. Wiggle away from labels – violently if you have to; once you are labeled you are destroyed. Treat them as Reasonable People, and demand the same. Don’t let it get to a situation like “you guys are American Flag Burners” and “You guys are all Westboro Baptist Church”.

History is your friend. Facts are your friend. Point out the overwhelming statistical evidence; the global warming facts, the number of black people in jail, the staggering amount we spend on Defence every year. You need to point out how crazy conservative this country has become objectively – even while they have become more scared and angry as ever.

Remember, people have neither the time, inclination or even the capacity to evaluate in a rational way, for example, whether “they are safer because of the War on Terror”. All they want is to feel safer. Torture makes them feel safer. You have to explode that feeling; you have to explain why the CIA’s torture program makes us less safe, not to mention the disgrace to our civic heritage and morality.

The Right Wing mindset is very black and white. It’s a tendency, almost a need to the world in terms of Good Guys and Bad Guys. Force them to acknowledge that the world is a complicated, messy place and the idea of Good Guys is a fantasy created (in its modern form) by Disney. Force them to acknowledge there is a problem; then squeeze a real answer out of them. Point out how many of the things the Left is doing is actually more moral than what the Right is doing.

Aside from the regular, push button issues, the basic confusion is over underlying issues; what exactly is going wrong with the country? Systemic, legally mandated Profit Maximisation policies in the hands of the biggest corporations and handful of individuals is the issue. This might be hard to make them see this. Avoid broad and hopelessly outdated terms like “capitalism”, “socialism”, and the like. If they can push you into an argument in such terms, you’ve already lost. Point out how we have never had a pure capitalist system; Adam Smith would have been horrified of the world we have today. Point out how the system is enriching corporations and only a very few individuals; the overwhelming amount of other people are getting poorer. If they try to push back with complaints about stifling economic regulation and Big Government, point out where regulation is necessary. Point out how they support Big Government via the military and implicit support of the Police State. Point out how are government implicitly subsidises the auto industry, the airline industry and the oil industry. It’s socialism for Big Business.

From my own personal experience, I remember how I would have an objection to the Leftist argument, and that would allow me to get hung up and disengage from what the Leftist was saying; I vividly remember this from watching Jon Stewart in college. There was always something that he would leave out; of something that I felt was subtly unfair. I and would be able to continue with my beliefs as before. This is a tricky one because what we have stumbled into here is the problem of cognitive dissonance. Another way of saying this is: Right Wingers have little capacity to evaluate the relative strength of opposing arguments. They will struggle to understand why their little objection based on a personal anecdote is meaningless in the face of well established, nation-wide statistics. This is point where you will have to be patient and really explain your entire thought process. It’s the only way.

Sometimes I think that the core difference between a Left Winger and a Right Winger is some confusion over Means and Ends. And End is like that far and lofty goal that we find ourselves thinking about. It’s your Utopia, whatever that maybe. Do you believe in a a Star Trek style future fuelled by technological progress? A steady-state economic world of farming communes and artisanal towns featured in Ecotopia? Or do you fantasise about about a retrograde 1950’s-esque America where everyone knows their place? This is your “end”. I think its fair to say that conservatives and Right Wingers are dominated by their End; they implicitly believe that the Ends Justify the Means. Let’s examine the flip side: the Means. This is what you are actually doing now. Means can ‘mean’ both method and tactics, but really refer to current reality. Focusing on an End allows us to ignore the Means, forgetting that, really all that matters is the Means (in the vast majority of cases; especially in big picture situations).

So that’s another good tactic to take. Talk Means. Let the Ends take care of themselves.

I’m reading an interesting article in the New York Times, called Who Blames the Victim? Its suggests that people who value traditional moral planks like “purity” essentially have little sympathy for victims. What does work is shifting the focus from the “victim” to the perpetrator. And I think there is a lot in this. Shift the focus from, say, immigrants as victims to why are the immigrants here? Who’s behind it? Who’s behind solution? Who’s behind Big Government expenses? Talk about the perpetrators.

I have used a very big brush here, and I am sure there are many more things to add; I might do a “list of punchy, un-ignorable statistics”  for arguments sake in the future.






One thought on “How to Argue with a Right-Winger

  1. This is a nice post. I have an entire side of my family that is fiercely right wing – and in my opinion almost even “radicalized” with it – and I have always personally felt that the vast majority of right wingers, in the north at least, are rather wealthy and removed folks who do not have much sympathy at all for anyone whose worse off. In the south they just seem confused. But the northern wealthy right wingers really do seem just plain cruel.

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