How to Talk to a Republican


Does it ever seem that Republicans are wrong about everything these days?

The list of demonstrable malarkey that Republicans hold to be unalienable truths is laughably long: Obama is Kenyan; Obamacare has death panels, increases the deficit, and pays for health care for illegal immigrants; Abortions give you breast cancer and cause pain in fetuses as young as 20 weeks; Iraq had WMDs and Saddam Hussein collaborated with Al Qaeda; Tax cuts increase government revenue; Obama’s stimulus created no jobs, and in fact government spending is hurting our economic recovery; If we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we can simply prioritize payments and avoid disaster; We are a Christian nation whose forefathers “warned the British” about our gun rights, “worked tirelessly” to abolish slavery, debated Creationism before Charles Darwin even thought of evolution, and never intended to separate church and state; Evolution is not real, and global warming, if it’s even happening, isn’t our fault.

To a syllable, all of this is thunderingly wrong, contradicted entirely by peer-reviewed scientific studies, as well as the vast majority of economists, historians, doctors and logic itself. But try convincing a Republican. From the think tank to the phone bank, from the church pew to the floor of Congress, the Republican Party has adopted as gospel a litany of lies that stops just short of declaring the Earth to be flat. I worry that’s next.

In The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality, Chris Mooney tackles the growing field of political psychology and finds that while liberals value accuracy, individuality, and cognition, conservatives seem happiest when finding closure by achieving coherence with their prior beliefs. This makes it very hard to have a rational discussion with a Republican if they damn the facts and go full speed ahead into their happy place where Sarah Palin doesn’t sound stupid.

When confronted with the “politicized wrongness” that has become “an increasingly important part of the conservative and Republican political identity,” writes Mooney, a typical liberal will feel compelled to explain the round-Earth facts to a flat-Earth Republican. It goes like this: “Sit down, listen to what I’m saying, and soon you’ll agree that I’m right.”
Has that ever worked for you? Of course not, and Mooney cites a ton of studies that document a “backfire effect.” In one study, subjects who believed we found WMDs in Iraq were given proof that none were found. The result? They were more likely to believe in the WMDs than before.

“Again and again it’s a fruitless battle between incompatible ‘truths,’ with no progress made and no retractions offered by those who are just plain wrong,” writes Mooney.

Their problem is that conservatives aren’t dumb, they’re just wrong. In fact, Mooney identified the phenomenon of the “smart idiot” in which the more educated the Republican, the stronger they hold onto documented falsehoods. And when presented with evidence debunking their beliefs, these “smart idiots” hold onto their wrongheaded notions even more feverishly. In other words, conservatives are immune, if not allergic, to reason.

In his book, Mooney flirts with a Kumbaya vision of liberals and conservatives respecting each other’s strengths and moving the country forward. But any solution that requires Republicans to accept the science on global warming, let alone the president’s birth certificate, might not work in this election season.

More promising are his suggestions for one-on-one progress. Get a conservative away from Fox and put them in front of CNN or MSNBC, and his or her attitude might change more than you would expect. Or you could start with an affirmation of a conservative’s values and respect where they are coming from. At least one study shows that makes conservatives more receptive to facts.

But the best advice he gives is for liberals to stop bludgeoning people with facts.

“Rather, liberals and scientists should find some key facts—the best facts—and integrate them into stories that move people,” writes Mooney. “A data dump is worse than pointless; it’s counterproductive. But a narrative can change heart and mind alike.”

When your brother-in-so-and-so forwards you one of those emails, resist the urge to send him’s latest refutation. Next time, try sharing your beliefs instead of your knowledge.

“Again and again, liberals have the impulse to shout back what’s true,” writes Mooney. “Instead, they need to shout back what matters.”

Buy the book:


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