11. The Best Activists Do This (Part I)

Dale Carnegie says:

In talking with people, don’t begin by discussing the thing on which you differ. Begin by emphasizing—and keep on emphasizing—the things on which you agree. Keep emphasizing, if possible, that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose.

Most top salespeople and activists would agree: the key to effective persuasion is to emphasize your areas of commonality with the customer and downplay your areas of difference. This is particularly true when you have just met someone, and are just starting to build the all-important positive relationship that is the foundation of most sales. We tend to like, and listen to, those who seem to like us, and who appear to have lots in common with us. And we tend not to like, and not listen to, those who seem not to like us, or don’t seem to have much in common with us. That is a basic tenet of human nature—not to be confused with narrowness or bigotry—and it’s the activist’s job to build her strategy and tactics around it.

Unfortunately, the Right has done this much better than the Left in recent years, with disastrous results for our country.

In his excellent book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2004), Thomas Frank documents how conservative demagogues in his home state of Kansas convinced many middle-class and working-class voters to vote Republican even though doing so was clearly against their economic interests. The demagogues did it using a now-familiar bait-and-switch strategy: during their campaigns, they sold the voters on a “family values” platform attacking abortion or gays; then, once they were elected, they ignored those issues but passed regressive economic laws that penalized the masses of people who voted for them.

This strategy is not unique to modern-day Kansas. The Republican Party has, in fact, worked diligently for decades to portray itself as representing the interests of ordinary people, even though its politicians invariably either derive from the economic elite or act on that elite’s behalf—Richard Nixon’s claim of speaking on behalf of a fictitious “silent majority” of U.S. voters being a classic example. By portraying themselves as representing the interests of ordinary people, conservatives are able to establish the positive relationship they need with the voters in order to sell them extreme and exploitative viewpoints.

At the same time, as Frank and other writers5 have documented, and as I discussed in Part IV, Chapter 6, conservatives have worked for decades to paint a picture of progressives, and even centrist Democrats and Republicans, as being financially, morally or otherwise divorced from ordinary voters. The Republican Party’s demonizing of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson as an “egghead” intellectual during the 1952 presidential campaign again serves as a good example—and, incidentally, it was Nixon himself, then the Republican candidate for vice president, who popularized the term “egghead” in reference to Stevenson.

Through their demonizing, the Republicans create a gulf between Democrats and progressives and the people who logically should be voting for them. This sabotages the positive relationship that progressives need to establish with voters to make their “sale,” thus making that sales much more difficult, if not impossible.

How the Left Sabotages Itself

But it’s not just conservatives who widen the gulf between progressives and those whom they wish to influence, however. Progressives do it themselves. Every time a progressive…

• Sees herself as smarter, more moral, more hip or otherwise better than her audience, or

• Thinks in terms of “us versus them”

. . . she widens the gulf between herself and those whom she is trying to influence.

Here, too, we can learn from professional activists and salespeople, who not only work strenuously to uncover points of commonality with the customer, but also to minimize points of difference. In particular, they work hard not to see themselves—or, worse, to have the customer see them—as being fundamentally different from, or superior to, the customer. True, they may have information that the customer lacks, but that doesn’t mean that the customer is inferior in any way. We all have gaps in our knowledge and deficiencies in our perspective.

Another way to say this is that professionals take the Key Insight discussed in Part IV, Chapter 8—that we have vast amounts in common even with people with whom we seriously disagree—seriously, and incorporate it as much as possible into their work.

Professionals also place most people they meet somewhere along a spectrum that starts at “not too likely to buy my product (or viewpoint)” and moves on to “somewhat likely to buy my product,” “highly likely to buy my product,” and “extremely likely to buy my product,” before ending up at, “bought my product!”

In other words, the pros don’t see the world in black-and-white (customer/not a customer), but in many shades of gray. Their goal, consequently, is not to convert customers all at once from “non-customer” to “customer”—an often impossible task—but to help customers move, one easy, non-threatening step at a time, along the spectrum. As a result, the number of people they can sell to is much larger than it might otherwise be, and they also make many more sales than they otherwise might.

You would do well to follow the pros’ example in your own activism: i.e., to work to minimize the points of difference and increase the points of commonality between you and your audience; and also to consider everyone you meet to be a potential supporter. As Peter Singer advises in Ethics Into Action, “. . . don’t divide the world into saints and sinners.”