How Liberals Lose by Being Right

Professor lecturing, with book and pointer

Liberals’ greatest advantage is that, because we care so much about facts and logic, we’re often right — as Stephen Colbert said, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

But being right is also liberals’ greatest weakness.

How can that be?

Because too many liberals think it’s enough. If it were, we wouldn’t lose so much.

Thanks to our commitment to reason, liberals are often right on policy, whether it’s about health, the environment, crime, civil rights, or the economy.

And polls consistently show that most Americans prefer liberal positions.

The trouble is, while most Americans like liberal policies, many of them don’t like liberals: more identify as conservatives or independents.

One reason for that is the aggressive negative branding campaign Republicans have been carrying out for decades now, often exploiting cultural and/or racial divisions. A famous example: the same Kentucky voters who thought they hated Obamacare loved the same plan when it was presented under a different name (now that so many Americans have tried it, Obamacare is popular no matter what you call it).

But I think another reason is that so many liberals act like everyone who disagrees with them just hasn’t caught up yet.

It doesn’t have to show up as overt arrogance — although it frequently does, as in terms like “red neck,” “gun nut,” or all the different variants of “those idiots.”

It also shows up every time any of us skips over trying to connect with and persuade the other side, and instead just tells them why they’re wrong.

But what if they are wrong? If you’re seriously trying to win an election, that doesn’t matter much. Politics is about persuasion. You don’t persuade many people by ignoring how they think and feel — right or wrong.

Let’s look at one of several hot-button issues that, over decades now, have driven away so many people who used to vote for Democrats: guns.

Most of the evidence supports typically liberal positions on guns, like requiring background checks, training, or other safety measures. And you know what? Most gun owners support them too. 

But so often, the way liberals talk about guns betrays both ignorance of and lack of interest in the interests and cultural concerns of gun owners. Instead, liberals sound like what they get accused of being: a distant, disconnected elite telling other people how to live.

Guess what: not every gun owner is a gun nut. Most want to use guns responsibly for recreation or self-defense. Many have treasured memories of growing up in a culture that includes hunting. And the ones who believe owning a gun is a question of freedom? Most aren’t militia wackos. Most sincerely believe in strict limits on government power.

You don’t have to agree with them. But if you can’t or won’t listen to them? You lose them.

And lose elections.

It’s been a serious problem for decades now, stretching from the Reagan Democrats to the Obama-Trump voters. In the face of Donald Trump’s entirely possible re-election, it’s no longer serious, it’s critical.

There’s a bitter irony here. Democratic policies help the working class, while Republicans help the rich. But Republicans, the party of business, know you have to lavish attention on the people you’re trying to sell to, as they have with working Americans.

Too often, Democrats act like it’s not worth their time.

Liberals, we claim to care. Let’s act like it.

As Obama used to say, change is hard. For many people, it’s also scary. Don’t just skip to the right answer.

Do the hard work of change: meet people where they are, listen to them, and persuade them.

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1 Response to How Liberals Lose by Being Right

  1. Anna Foglia says:

    I totally agree that both dems and reps can be insufferable and close minded.
    We need to open our minds and use the power of debate and persuasion and stop insulting each other. It’s another form of bullying. Don’t discount and dismiss, inquire and try to understand. Dems and reps are soon going to need reconciliation, as we feel more polarized and entrenched then ever. Right on, Spencer!

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