How Can Liberals and Conservatives Communicate?

Picture: "Purple America" by Robert J. Vanderbei, (CC)

There was a great article a couple weeks ago by Lynn Stuart Parramore, an AlterNet senior editor, titled What if Liberals and Progressives Could Learn to Talk to White Southern Men? in which she reminds us that for Southerners, being polite and reasonable are directly signs of their sense of honor and self-respect. Most of them, despite our political disagreements, don’t want to be seen as rash, close-minded and unreasonable. Lynn Parramore, also Director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project, recounts stories of relating to these individuals on certain issues:

What liberals and progressives don’t seem to understand is that you don’t counter a myth with a pile of facts and statistics. You have to counter it with a more powerful story. And that’s what Obama and the Democrats have repeatedly failed to do. White Southern men want a story that makes them feel proud of America and what it can accomplish. I’m troubled when I hear lefties heap scorn upon the South, partly because I know that the antagonism is precisely what the Mitt Romneys of the world hope for. They want to divide us and keep those regional antagonisms stoked so that the cynical Southern strategy continues to work. Every time a San Franciscan or a New Yorker rails against “rednecks” in the South, he has done Karl Rove’s work for him.

Finding common ground is important, and it’s the sort of thing we need to do to repair the toxic divisions sown by politicians and the media to keep us apart. It is vital if we hope to tackle issues like the debt deal, the fiscal cliff, and yes, even social issues.

There is a lot of ground that conservatives and progressives can share; disapproval of Wall St. tactics, distrusting the very wealthy (“38 percent of the the Bible Belt say they would be less likely to vote for a candidate who is “very wealthy” than one who isn’t, a lot more than the 20 percent who admit that they would be less inclined to vote for an African-American), fear of drones and the growing surveillance state, and have historically supported some form of a social safety net. Sure there can be a lot of crazy ideas in there too, but liberalism has their fair share of nutjobs, as well.

And conservatives don’t see themselves as the unreasonable ones, anyway. For a conservative, not only is the uncomplicated authoritarian mindset an internally rewarding and often consistent one (also reinforced by parenting),  they also speak a language that focuses on not just dogma and faith, but also common sense and results. If you can reframe arguments in a certain way, conservatives may see a larger picture that begins to cross over with the debater on the left.

Results-oriented language should have been used by the Obama administration to pitch his ideas to the status quo Right, says Richard Tafel, founder of The Public Squared, a public policy training program for nonprofits and social entrepreneurs. Obamacare, he claims, could have been sold, honestly and openly, but using a different approach:

“Folks, we have universal healthcare in the United States.  It’s called the emergency room and we pay for it. And we cover people’s healthcare right now who don’t pay into any insurance scheme and you’re carrying them. If you’re paying taxes right now you’re covering them. Wouldn’t it make sense for us as a nation to just ask those folks to register and get into an insurance program so we can cut their cost, we can be more proactive with their healthcare, and we can avoid the vast growth of healthcare costs.”

(Watch “How to Speak Republican” video at BigThink)

What’s certainly true is that over the past four plus years, conservatives and liberals haven’t even been speaking the same language, let alone having the same conversations when arguing. Until progressives open their minds to respect and include a minority, a populist group, whom they happens to strongly disagree with on religion, taxation, immigration, marriage, foreign policy, and the role of government, there cannot be any real progress. Stubborn and obstructionist, perhaps. But both sides severely believe they are in the right. Regional antagonisms, ivory silos, and othering will not push us together or jumpstart our national dialogue.

Purple America” analysis by Robert J. Vanderbei, Professor of Operations Research and Financial Engineering at Princeton University. Also included are 3-D models and population analysis of the 2012 election, and the changing electorate over time.


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38 Comments on "How Can Liberals and Conservatives Communicate?"

  1. "Big" Richard Johnson | Nov 18, 2012 at 9:43 pm |

    I was hoping we could trade phone numbers/addresses and enjoy a bi-partisan night of buggery.

  2. It might also help if the left got a few people who voiced their opinions while sounding strong and angry…instead of thoughtful and civilized. The ‘bubba’ vote doesn’t respond to people who sound educated and thoughtful…or inclined to peacemaking. What works is sounding fierce, loud, opinionated and self assured of one’s position. Also…whatever you say…say it while flags are waving and with pictures of soldiers hugging their family in the background, or with constant references to God every 3-5 seconds. Do enough of that and they’ll follow like a herd. Basically, do what the conservatives do…because it obviously works like gangbusters.

  3. BuzzCoastin | Nov 18, 2012 at 10:32 pm |

    anyone still caught in the right vs left paradigm
    cannot be reasoned with
    regardless of which side of the psyop they’re attached to

  4. Anarchy Pony | Nov 18, 2012 at 11:43 pm |

    With firearms and sharp things?

    • Calypso_1 | Nov 19, 2012 at 6:23 am |

      a big plate of pork BBQ and a pitcher of sweet tea helps as well

      • Jin The Ninja | Nov 19, 2012 at 11:02 pm |

        bbq tempeh and iced jasmine kombucha isn’t going to cut it, is it?

        • Calypso_1 | Nov 19, 2012 at 11:39 pm |

          …actually we do have some renowned chefs with a growing locavore movement.

          How about a nice persimmon headcheese with a jasmine Pu’er.

  5. MadHierophant | Nov 19, 2012 at 1:18 am |

    With the right amount of lobbyist donations informing their opinions.

  6. Authoritarians are found among both right-centrists AND “left”-centrists. The distinction between authoritarian followers and non-authoritarians is far more important than the one between right-centrists AND “left”-centrists. Found that out the hard way back when I was on DailyKos and found myself shouted down by Obamabots (forbidden word on that website. Yes, really) every time I questioned Obama Administration’s public policies. Another reason why I “left the left”. Tired of pandering to idiots.

    Non-authoritarian followers with differing opinions on a public policy issue can discuss differing viewpoints, find out what’s behind them, and occasionally find common ground. People who think the opinion of their Great Fearless Leader or their political cult is Holy Writ just can’t be talked to.

    That’s why I laugh when I hear people trying to find out the differences between the liberal and conservative brains. While some of them are quite competent in the field of neuropsychology. their grasp of political reality is too shallow to enable them to figure out what they are really measuring. And since they’re mentally trapped in the “left”-centrist – right-centrist tribal mindset, they don’t get explanations from outside that reality that correspond to the real world.

  7. What White Southerners fail to realize…is that they are not relevant anymore. Liberals don’t need to talk to them any longer.

    • Matt Staggs | Nov 19, 2012 at 9:52 am |

      Hi, I’m your friendly web content editor and podcast host at, and I’m a white southerner living in Mississippi. Thought I’d extend a hand and a hello in hope that you won’t see us all as two-dimensional, hateful, froth-mouthed caricatures.

      • Calypso_1 | Nov 19, 2012 at 10:21 am |

        I second the motion made by the gentleman from mississippsi.

      • mannyfurious | Nov 19, 2012 at 11:53 am |

        Yes, but you’re the exception. In fact, your presidential vote (if you voted, and not for Romney) didn’t even count this year.

        Fact remains, white males are overwhelmingly conservative and stupid. Somehwere around 60 percent of the bastards voted for Romney and did so with glee. I imagine those numbers are even higher in places like Mississippi.

        With that said, I for one certainly don’t see all of you as two-dimensional, hateful, froth-mouthed caricatures. But if I were a betting man, I’d certainly bet against your type.

        • Matt Staggs | Nov 19, 2012 at 12:13 pm |

          I voted third party, and you’re correct, I’m “against type”, but I’m not the only one. White southern males being overwhelmingly conservative is a fair and accurate statement, although I take exception to calling people who disagree with my personal politics or general ethos and view of life stupid. Double goes for people who aren’t of my race (but I’m hoping that you didn’t mean to say that the majority of white males are stupid). In no way do I say that to chide you, of course; it’s just something I try (but not always succeed) to avoid. Yes, my vote didn’t count, but thanks to the electoral college there’s not much chance that my state’s vote would matter for much anyway.

          • mannyfurious | Nov 19, 2012 at 12:51 pm |

            I’ve got some cognitive dissonance going on right now. I agree with you. People who disagree with me aren’t necessarily stupid. Their reasons for disagreeing might be though. I actually tend to get along better with people who fall along the “conservative” or “right-wing” paradigm, because they generally have better senses of humor and, ironically, aren’t as judgmental as the lefties I know. Also, I can’t stand political correctness and that (and animal rights) seems to be the only things lefties these days truly stand for. I bring this up only to point out that even though I disagree with a lot of these people, my friends, I don’t tend to think of them as stupid. Although there are some whose reasons for voting for someone like Romney I do believe are stupid.

            So I guess it’s a fine line. You and I can disagree, but if I feel your reasons for disagreeing are stupid, I’m going to call it that. It’s just my own personal opinion. It’s by no means the “end all be all” of what is right or wrong, and it ultimately doesn’t make a difference in anything, and hell, I might be so wrong that I’m the stupid one. I’m open to that possibility, but still. That’s my opinion. It doesn’t even mean that I don’t like you. It just means that reasoning makes little sense to me.

            As to the comment about white males, it’s not a racial thing. I don’t think white males are genetically lesser than anyone else (my old man was white, my uncle’s white, two of my grandparents are white, I’m half white, my brother’s half white, and I think very highly of us all), just that in this society, it tends to be that white men are dumb-fuck Republicans. Not all white men, obviously. Just as it tends to be that black and hispanic men are the members of street gangs. Again, it’s not a racial thing. It’s just a trend that occurs for whatever reason in our society.

          • Matt Staggs | Nov 19, 2012 at 12:55 pm |

            Very reasonable, regarding “stupid reasons” versus “stupid people.” We’re in agreement.

      • "Big" Richard Johnson | Nov 19, 2012 at 4:29 pm |

        I’d rather continue mocking the south.

    • Calypso_1 | Nov 19, 2012 at 5:18 pm |

      This oped does a nice job of illustrating that southern support of obama was divided along the exact same lines as they were in blue states.

  8. It is clear the current crop of “progressives” learned about the art of election fraud, black panther intimidation, and corruption of the mass media. There is literally NOTHING the “progressives” have worth communicating. They are the scourge of the planet and have destroyed the fiscal integrity of the US and EU and were the architect of the infiltration of the West by Muslim radicals. They worship MORONS like Mayor Bloomberg and support supervisors of elections who rigged the votes and voting machines. Real conservatives do not like predatory multinational corporate monopolies nor multistate and multinational predatory banks. Neo-cons ARE NOT conservatives.The “progressives” are useful idiots of the bankers and corporate raiders because they destroy competition through imposition of excessive taxes, fees, and regulations that only well established and monopolistic firms can comply with. When you control the money supply (Central banks – privately held) or otherwise have a business sector monopoly it matters not who governs.

    • Jin The Ninja | Nov 19, 2012 at 10:06 am |

      lol. too much fox news followed by a swig of kool aid.

      • Liam_McGonagle | Nov 19, 2012 at 7:27 pm |

        I ‘liked’ your repsonse because his rant did have a whiff of the victimized white guy about it.

        But there are a few valid points that could be teased out of it and used to erect a more constructive dialogue, if only our interlocutor could assure us he wasn’t huffing turpentine.

        I think it is broadly true that the center left (which yer man up dere mistakes for Muslamic-lovin’-sociamalists) do have a penchant for a bloodlessly bureaucratic style that is frequently co-opted by Multinational corporate types. I think it is fair to question the reliability of their moral compass on those grounds, and stated in this way, based on our prior interactions, I’m inclined to think you would agree.

        The problem is that most self-identified conservatives are not able to calm down long enough to even consider re-framing the question in a less inflamatory manner. They are capable of such a very narrow bandwidth of acceptable thoughts and behaviours themselves that even the slightest deviation from what they’ve been taught to repeat as Unalterable Gospel Truth sets them off into la-la land.

        As a bland, non-descript whiteguy I find that I can get away with civil discussions of alternatives for brief stretches–but normally only until I start to get substantive on them. My non-white, non-Christian, LBGT or whatever friends usually can’t even get in the door.

        • Jin The Ninja | Nov 19, 2012 at 11:01 pm |

          i agree with everything you’ve said here. i think you’ve sussed out the true difference between ‘liberals’ (centre, moderate centre left) and progressives (left onward)- there is room for radical discourse if not necessarily radical conclusions in progressive rhetoric. liberal thought only allows for a white washed ‘equality’ inclusiveness to the current system. anything right of liberal tends toward a narrower more myopic worldview, that often seriously deviates from accepted reality.

    • Oh yes Duncan you really nailed it. Let’s see…after Bush’s endless wars at 2 billion/month and low taxes, surely that is fiscal responsibility. Obama is residing over the lowest taxes in 50 years and has quarterly increases in jobs numbers. Election fraud you say? hmmm…Let’s see….Governor Scott of Florida, R, had a nice try at discouraging democratic voters. I will say your last sentence I agree with wholeheartedly.

    • "Big" Richard Johnson | Nov 19, 2012 at 4:29 pm |

      I agree. “Progressives” are just reactionary liberals who took a wrong turn on their path to Leftism. So is everybody else, comrade.

      • Jin The Ninja | Nov 19, 2012 at 6:11 pm |

        i can’t tell if this is just subtle trolling or serious.

        • "Big" Richard Johnson | Nov 19, 2012 at 7:09 pm |


          • Jin The Ninja | Nov 19, 2012 at 10:56 pm |

            i think progressive are quite a bit more evolved than run of the mill (neo) liberals. liberals tend to be white and professional. progressives tend to be intellectual and of many colours and genders.

  9. Liam_McGonagle | Nov 19, 2012 at 10:31 am |

    Against every expectation, I actually had a productive conversation with a conservative libertarian recently. I acheived this by asking the question:

    “Which system has MORE capitalism? One with only a handful of enormously powerful multinationals or one with a large number of small entrepreneurs?”

    It’s shocking to see how poor these people are at extrapolating even the most obvious consequences of their philosophy without holding their hands and walking them through it like children.

  10. Liam_McGonagle | Nov 19, 2012 at 10:43 am |

    Sorry, but I’ve worked in the South on various consulting assignments with local staff, both internal and client. And forgive me if what I have to say is obvious, but it seems to have bypassed the author of this piece altogether:

    Traditional Southern ‘politeness’ only extends to people who agree with them.

    Oh, you’ll get invited to their churches, and they’ll adopt a polite tone while trying to convince you that your religious tradition is overseen by The Whore of Babylon herself, but they will never deviate for one moment from the idea that their philosophy is a divinely ordained doctrine, and that to question it is at best a sign of your hopeless ignorance of The One True Savior, or at worst an attempt to corrupt their immortal souls.

    Not saying that ALL Southerners are traditionalists. Just that those who invoke that bologna are full of sh*t.

    • Calypso_1 | Nov 19, 2012 at 11:17 am |

      The most polite & gracious people I’ve ever met are Iranians.

      • Liam_McGonagle | Nov 19, 2012 at 12:08 pm |

        I haven’t met too many Iranians. But if it’s valid to generalize about Middle Eastern cultures in general, I would agree that on average they are far more curteous than the average westerner–certainly the average American.

        Sometimes I wonder whether that’s a consequence of the relative weakness of the concept of individuality in their cultures, or they’re afraid that as an American I’m going to call in a drone strike on their *ss.

        Anyhow, based on an admittedly unscientific sample, my favorite Middle Easterners were Egyptians and Syrians. Probably just those specific individuals, but they had great senses of humor.

  11. “nutjobs, as well.”

    Why did you single out a website devoted to getting toxic mercury out of vaccines for infants as “nutjobs?” You certainly didn’t make a coherent case there, nor establish a problem with their position. I looked for some substantiation to your claim, and found:

    “There are 25 micrograms of mercury in each flu shot that uses Thimerosal as a preservative[1]. And a half cup of water (4 ounces) with that much mercury has 0.2114 parts per million mercury and is considered a hazardous waste by the USEPA[2].”

    Yes, mercury, a toxic heavy metal is well known to be a deadly poison. So what makes them “nutjobs?”

    Perhaps the credibility gap isn’t where you assumed it would be.

    • Breshvic | Jan 7, 2013 at 2:48 am |

      I just linked to ‘Age of Autism’ not any particular article on there, so I can’t speak to that specific content, other than to suggest you do your own research on the anti-vaccination claims rather than trust anything their biased site puts out. You may be surprised how easy it is to falsify their claims.

      Dr. Andrew Wakefield himself is a charlatan and fraud with the medical credibility of a snake oil salesman.

  12. …. Then the “liberal bias media” was talking conservative according to Rachel Maddow. She basically spit exactly what the author said about Obamacare. Full fricking conservotalk according to the author and what do we have now from our southern brothers? Calls for secession and a general disbelief that America isn’t Amurika. Well it never was and that’s what the south doesn’t understand. Amurika was a pure white, christian founded, male-dominant fantasy land that never existed except maybe around the founding of the country. Welcome to 2012, Amurika is a fantasy, and a racially, religiously and sexually diverse America is what is actual. Reality has set in and they don’t like it. They want to return to their fantasy land and I could care less if they accomplish this or not.

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