Winning the heart and minds

On March 12, 2014, I argued that President Obama needed to apologize to the American people for something. It didn’t matter what, I said, so long as it was something “the people” were offended about. The state of the economy would do, or our “lost greatness” or the presence of so many people who were not born here. None of these outcomes can be traced to Obama’s presidency, but an apology is nevertheless necessary because of the effect it would have.

In that March post [1], I developed a situation John Gray talks about in several of his Marhearts and minds 2s/Venus books. She thinks you have committed an offense of some kind. You would like to explain that you have not, but she is miffed and won’t hear anything you say until you apologize. So apologize. Then you get to say the thing that needs to be said.

When I referred, above, to “the effect it would have,” this is what I was talking about. Donald Trump was elected by a coalition of fat cats, racists, abused and ignored low income voters and Hillary-haters. Of that list, the one the Democrats can do something about is the abused and ignored low income voters. We (Democrats, progressives, socialists, feminists) desperately need to talk to them—more, soon, about just why that is so—and they desperately need to talk to us because all their hopes are going to be dashed.

Why? Not because Trump might be re-elected or some other Trump-like person. Trump is just a weed. He is not the most serious problem to be addressed. The most serious problem is that we have a weed-producing soil. The polity we now have is very friendly to charlatans running for office. They have a lot to gain by doing that, so there is no reason to imagine that they will stop. Amending the soil so that it is not so hospitable to weeds is by far the better strategy and it has the advantage of being something we can—in principle—do.

This urgent need, “amending the soil,” is what I am calling a “hearts and minds” problem. [2]  Democrats have focused narrowly on winning elections—which is fine as far as it goes—but we win elections by having broadly appealing candidates, sophisticated fund-raising routines, and elaborate get-out-the-vote strategies. None of those address the hearts and minds problem. We just wind up winning the presidency and occasionally the Congress and about a third of the states and hardening the lines of the debate. The process of winning an election is sometimes called “counting noses” but below, see a more substantial view of the problem.

All this reminds me of a saying I first heard from my mother: “A man convinced against his will/Is of the same opinion still.”

'The battle for hearts and minds was proving too difficult, so I thought we'd just make do with heads.'So if the Democrats’ problem is a hearts and minds problem, how do we reach the hearts and minds of the abused and ignored low income voters? They are, as I see it, the only part of the Trump constituency to which the Democrats have access. Besides that, they were part of the the original Democratic coalition.

I think we could make a start by not disdaining the issues that hold them where they are. The arguments they make are dreadful beyond repair, but they don’t care about the arguments anyway. They care about the issues—just a few issues. And these are moral issues. We keep arguing economic self-interest because that is what worked for us in the past. And it will work in the future, too, if all we want to do is win elections. If we want to amend the soil—to make constitutional (note the small c-) changes in the polity, we are going to have to attempt something deeper.

That is the end of my attempt to propose a new solution in principle and to justify the logic. Ordinarily, that doesn’t persuade anyone. Let’s look at some examples; maybe that will work. I’m thinking of “welfare cheats” and “a woman’s—a pregnant woman’s—right to choose” (to abort her fetus).

Welfare Cheats

Let’s start with “welfare cheats.” They drive conservative voters crazy. In support of their umbrage, they cite “facts” that they have heard somewhere. They talk about how many such cheaters there are and about how great a burden those parasites impose on state and national budgets, and how the great majority of people on welfare are black.hearts and minds 5
All the “facts” are wrong and I am a fact-oriented kind of person, so what I move naturally to do is to show that they are mistaken. There are very few cheaters in the welfare system according to all the actual studies I have read over several decades. The cost is remarkably low as a percentage of all government social programs, even as a percentage of social programs. By far the largest percentage of users and abusers of the welfare system are white. We could debate about the margins around some of those claims, but for today, let’s just say that they are all correct.

That is where I want to go. That is where I am most comfortable. But let’s stop and remember the wife to whom an apology has not been given. She isn’t listening. The facts don’t matter if you don’t hear them. Even the logic is not compelling if you refuse to acknowledge the terms. Nothing is going to work in this scenario until she puts the hearing aids back in, so let do that first. And facts are not going to do that.
What will do that? I think complaining about welfare cheats would do it. We (liberals, Democrats) treat the issue as if it were not a moral affront; as if we think cheating the system is perfectly acceptable. [3] Why don’t we begin by saying, “You are right. This is a problem that needs to be addressed. Let’s work on it together.”

They will still be angry—with us as well as with the welfare cheats—and they will propose punitive and ineffective responses. Those responses won’t work, but two good things could happen. The first is that we—the former Trump supporters and the current Democrats—are working together on something. That’s a good thing. The second is that any particular “welfare cheat” is going to be a stereotype buster and it is harder to call for the punishment of someone whose circumstances you know.

Will that fix the problem? Yes. It will. You said No because you forgot what the problem was. We are working on developing a hearts and minds strategy that will change the constitution of the American polity. We are not “fixing the welfare system.” I wanted to remind you of that now, before we start into abortion, the next topic.


What drives conservative voters crazy, it seems to me, is not the need some women have to have their fetuses aborted. Consider this from a 2016 Pew survey.

Though abortion is a divisive issue, more than half of U.S. adults take a non-absolutist position, saying that in most – but not all – cases abortion should be legal (34%) or illegal (24%). Fewer take the position that in all cases abortion should be either legal (23%) or illegal (15%).

You get a majority for what Pew calls “the non-absolutist position” by adding the views of people who think that abortion should be legal in most cases to those who think it should not be legal in most cases. So 34% + 24% = 57%, a majority. That’s a majority of people who say that abortion is perfectly acceptable if there is a good reason.

But Democrats don’t want to argue that. They (we) want to argue that it is the woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion for any reasons at all. We don’t say it that way, but conservative voters hear it that way. Once I have said that the choice belongs to the pregnant woman, I am bound to consider valid any reasons at all.

hearts and minds 6That’s not a hearts and minds view. The actual politics of providing or refusing abortions is complicated by the federal system, which requires the Supreme Court to tell the states what they may do and what they may not do. The Court cannot say that abortion is acceptable if there is a good reason and otherwise it is not. But Democrats could say that.  That’s the position President Clinton was widely understood to support when he said that abortions should be “safe, legal, and rare.” That is not a criterion the law can live up to, but it could be the rhetorical home of the Democratic party.

We would have to be serious about “rare.” We would have to find some way to say that casual and thoughtless abortions are wrong. It is at that point that the hearing aids go back in and the object of our sincerest affections—the formerly Democratic Trump voters—begins to listen again.

The hearts and minds strategy isn’t for sissies. And if may not work, either. But the kind of voting constituency we have right now—divided, self-referential, vindictive—is a soil that will grow only weeds. If it isn’t Trump, it will be the next weed.

I want to propose the amendment of our soil as the 28th Amendment. What do you think?

[1] Citing your old columns is what my brother John calls “calling up the reserves.” Perfect.
[2]  According to a site called the Phrase Finder, Chuck Colson was not the origin of the adapted saying, “Once you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” One possible origin “is a Vietnam-era congressional debate in which a liberal Democrat pleaded for programs designed to ‘win the hearts and minds of the downtrodden.’ Hawkish Rep. Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.) responded, ‘I say get ’em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.’ It’s doubtful that this rejoinder began with Rivers, however. It certainly didn’t begin with Charles Colson.”
[3] We call it “blaming the victim” but these con artists who work the system and waste the money are not just victims—although they are that too. They are the indicators of a social problem that everyone would like to see fixed.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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2 Responses to Winning the heart and minds

  1. hesskw says:

    Is this the 6,763rd DD? >

  2. hessd says:

    Since I shifted to WordPress, it is #500.

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