Political

Do you know how to change the sports team that someone supports? (Expanded version)

A crowd of Lego figures - CC0 Public Domain
This post has been a little bit of a sleeper hit since I first published it, so here is an updated version with rather more on the ‘how’.

Pick your favourite sport.

Now pick your favourite team or, if it’s a sport for individuals, your favourite sports star.

Next think of their deadliest rival.

Now imagine I decide to try to persuade you to switch from your hero to their deadliest opponent. What sort of arguments are going to work?

Practical arguments could work. But only a bit. I mean who is going to switch their allegiances because the average ticket price to see that rival / enemy / nemesis is £5.38 lower?

You’ll probably also be fairly immune to personal failings of your favourite. A drink drive conviction, even if it followed the death of a pedestrian in an accident, isn’t going to move many. Something really serious might at least get you to decide to stop cheering your favourite, such as a conviction for child abuse. but it’d have to be pretty serious.

Even if I manage to wow you with just how much more tactically smart that rival / enemy / nemesis is and get you to grudgingly appreciate their brilliance, it’s still not going to get that far if your favourite is also that of your friends, neighbours or colleagues. That sense of community and identification which comes from supporting who you support is a very heavy anchor holding you back from change.

The reason for pointing all this out? This is much how political party loyalty usually works too. Yet the sort of political arguments deployed in an attempt to win people over are often of the ‘but our tickets are £5.38 cheaper’ type. They can work were loyalty is weak and choices are finely posed.

Long-term political success requires a deeper and more durable shift in loyalty and self-identity. When a party has it, it makes it remarkably resilience to bad times. Look at what happened to Labour in 1983 or the Conservatives in 1997. Completely mullered, and yet yet vote shares above what the Lib Dems and post-1945 predecessors have achieved even in our very best years. And still hundreds of MPs.

To grow, parties have to win over more of those fans. That’s why important as pointing at potholes is to Liberal Democrats (and the practical improvements which flow from pointing are substantive, practical improvements to people’s lives), it’s not enough. We also need to secure attachment to the party that isn’t just based on things we do which others can do too (yes, non-Lib Dems can point too) but also based on what we believe that others don’t.

For some people, that is a matter of simple communication – hey, we’re here and turns out we believe the same as you do. But for many others it’s also a matter of shifting their loyalty, from one team to another.

How’s that done?

  1. Don’t insult them. An obvious lesson many on both sides of the Brexit debate forget.
  2. Share their values, where possible. The successful campaigns for same-sex marriage in many countries illustrate this – framing the arguments as being about loving couples, rather than about equality, has persuaded many because it starts with shared values rather than starting with contested values. That opens up the door to changing minds.
  3. Push that door further open not with the points that most appeal to you but with the points that require the smallest initial shifts by others. For example, campaigners against Labour’s plans for mandatory national I.D. cards in the UK made more progress at building opposition to the scheme (successfully, in the end) by using arguments over their cost to individuals than by using arguments about liberty and its principles.
  4. Follow up by giving people the chance to join a new community that matches who they wish to be. Support of a sporting team, or a political party, gives people a sense of self-identity, a community to be part of and an affirmation that this is what people like them do. Gun ownership is a powerful creator of a sense of community in the US. The NHS is a great example of this in British politics. Amongst many (though not all) Leave campaigners, the desire to be the sort of person who supporters the NHS is very powerful, as it is for Remain campaigners. That makes arguments over Brexit’s impact on the NHS (spoiler: it’s bad) a chance for people to be part of a community that is one they feel at home with – Brits who want good health services for everyone.
  5. Keep on using specific arguments. The Reddit community /r/ChangeMyView is a fascinating petri dish for how persuasion works and this is one of the clear patterns from it: be specific and in particular conversations keep going for up to four responses. (Nick Clegg’s recent podcast with Nigel Farage shows Clegg doing pretty much the opposite of this, often briefly alluding to disagreeing with Farage in very generalised ways, not citing specifics and not following-up. Of course Farage is not the target for persuasion, but for the listener is makes for a weak presentation of the anti-Farage case.)
  6. Remember all through this that the aim is to make a new habit of loyalty: that requires persistence, consistency and, to be very tactical, not forcing people to break their habits by failing to put up candidates in elections.
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