Changing your mind about dinner, what to watch, whether to go, and what brand of coffee to drink is easy. But changing your mind about politics is harder, as in metamorphic rocks.
Thomas Jefferson talked about it in 1816. “Laws and institutions must go hand in had with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”
Albert Einstein was one of the most important physicists of all time. “His scientific predictions have withstood 100 years of scientific challenges. His thinking fundamentally changed the way we understand the universe. Yet people are more likely to be convinced Einstein wasn’t a great physicist than to change their minds on topics like immigration or the death penalty. It has nothing to do with a person’s intelligence (or the quality of information on Einstein or immigration policy). It’s due to the fact that we’re simply more open to changing our minds on nonpolitical topics. Scientists have been keen to figure out why — because if they can, it it may open the door to the hardest challenge in politics right now: changing minds.”
Switching political parties, leaning away from your party’s platform or presumed leader is psychologically challenging. That’s because partisan identities are warped and smudged in personal identities. Shrinks say an attack on a strongly held political belief is an attack on the self. Our brains are built to protect the self. Some might say we have an immune system for uncomfortable political thoughts.
Scientific American put it this way. “Our political opinions and attitudes are an important part of who we are and how we construct our identities. Hence, if I ask your opinion on health care, you will not only share it with me, but you will likely resist any of my attempts to persuade you of another point of view. Likewise, it would be odd for me to ask if you are sure that what you said actually was your opinion. If anything seems certain to us, it is our own attitudes. . . A powerful shaping factor about our social and political worlds is how they are structured by group belonging and identities. For instance, researchers have found that moral and emotion messages on contentious political topics, such as gun-control and climate change, spread more rapidly within rather than between ideologically like-minded networks. This echo-chamber problem seems to be made worse by the algorithms of social media companies who send us increasingly extreme content to fit our political preferences.”
Most of us are set in our political ways. But at least as late as August 2022, the vast majority of people, 78%, say they’ve changed their minds on one or more political issues throughout the course of their lives. The topics on which Americans are most likely to say they’ve changed their minds are foreign policy, drugs, and health care. People cite different reasons for shifting their perspectives on each issue: on foreign policy, they cite current events; on drug policy, new facts they’ve learned; on health care, personal experiences.
Turns out, it makes a difference whether the mind-changer is a conservative or a liberal. People who say they’re very conservative, are less likely than liberals to say they’ve changed their opinion. YouGovAmerica.com published a list of eleven political issues as of August 2022 on which some people on both sides have changed their minds.
- Foreign policy (42% have changed their mind on)
- Drug policy (40% have changed their mind on)
- Health care (35% have changed their mind on)
- The death penalty (33% have changed their mind on)
- Immigration (31% have changed their mind on)
- Same-sex marriage (29% have changed their mind on)
- Gun control (29% have changed their mind on)
- Racial discrimination (27% have changed their mind on)
- Abortion (27% have changed their mind on)
- Climate change (27% have changed their mind on)
- Free speech (17% have changed their mind on)
Each of the eleven subjects are supported or propped up by “facts.” Too often “facts” are irrelevant to strongly held political beliefs, prejudices, or socio-economic status. The mind doesn’t follow the facts. Facts, as John Adams put it, are stubborn things, but our minds are even more stubborn. Doubt isn’t always resolved in the face of facts for even the most enlightened among us, however credible and convincing those facts might be. That is confirmation bias; we tend to undervalue evidence that contradicts our beliefs and overvalue evidence that confirms them. We filter out inconvenient truths and arguments on the opposing side. As a result, our opinions solidify, and it becomes increasingly harder to disrupt established patterns of thinking.
We live in an age where the old adage—Facts First—no longer applies. Cognitive psychology and neuroscience studies have found that the exact opposite is often true when it comes to politics: People form opinions based on emotions, such as fear, contempt, and anger, rather than relying on facts. New facts often do not change people’s minds.
Without question the claim that the 2020 Election was “Stolen from Donald Trump,” is false, based on facts, evidence, and legal adjudication. But for many of Trump’s voters, his belief has become theirs. The error is in thinking that Trump or his voters actually think he lost. Deep down, they know Joe Biden won, but that does not change attitude or tribal pose. “Some 35 percent of Americans—including 68 percent of Republicans—believe the Big Lie, pushed relentlessly by former President Donald Trump, and amplified by conservative media, that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. They think that Trump was the true victor and that he should still be in the White House today.”
Sadly, the belief is grounded in conspiracy theory.
“The exact details of the story vary—was it Hugo Chávez who stole the election? Or the CIA? Or Italian defense contractors? Outlandish claims like these seem to have made this conspiracy theory more durable, not less. Regardless of plausibility, the more questions that are raised, the more mistrustful Trump voters are of the official results. Perhaps that’s because the Big Lie has been part of their background noise for years. Remember that Trump began spreading the notion that America’s elections were “rigged” in 2016—when he thought he would lose. Many Republicans firmly believed that the Democrats would steal an election if given the chance. When the 2020 election came and Trump did lose, his voters were ready to doubt the outcome. Some Trump voters looked at the numbers and couldn’t make sense of them. How could so many more people have voted in 2020 than in 2016? To the extent that Big Lie believers try to explain their skepticism over millions more people voting for Biden than for Trump, they often point to relative crowd sizes at rallies.”
While people resist changing their minds based on facts about political issues, political parties change their minds depending on the odds of winning, not facts. With the 2022 midterms just weeks away, liberals see the odds as cautiously optimistic. The SCOTUS reversal of a half-century of precedent by reversing Roe v. Wade gives democratic candidates a rally point. And many Republican candidates for the House and Senate are Trump acolytes who got his endorsement against the better judgment of the Republican establishment.
Moral psychology comes into play when someone tries to change someone else’s political views. There are two norms to consider. Intuitions and strategic reasoning. The latter works where intuition fails. “Reasoned” evidence prevails over knee-jerk responses. If you try to change someone’s mind about politics, that someone has to be a person who likes you, or at least doesn’t dislike you, before they’ll be open to your message. We view the world through narratives. Our narratives are based on moral judgments. As it turns out, different people actually have different moral foundations, and libertarians, conservatives and liberals think different things are important. The most important moral foundation for libertarians is freedom. Liberals by contrast balance considerations between care/harm, fairness as equality, and freedom. Conservatives balance their understanding of right and wrong among fairness as proportionately, liberty, authority, loyalty, and sanctity.
This blog focused on the ethical parameters of changing your political mind. They are few and always debatable. Some would argue that’s because politics is and always will be a dirty business. It’s a force that most ordinary citizens take little daily notice of. It’s like gravity—just ignore it. It is too often a mindless and choiceless exercise in futility. That’s because it’s hard to debate values or identity when end game is re-election ad infinitum. It’s also absurd to try to change minds when such a strong sense of righteousness yields to demonize the other side. Vote for Joe because he’s a Democrat. Vote against Trump because he’s a Republican. Tribal rivalry rules.
“Our politics are choice-less because the parties have abused our legislative and electoral processes in ways that limit the choices that voters have in political candidates and limit the freedom of our legislators to fulfill their responsibilities as our representatives. Low attendance caucuses, conventions, closed primaries, and manipulative redistricting are the perfect tools to ensure election of candidates preferred by ideological activists or special interests within a party, leaving little chance for independent and moderate candidates to win.”
 Excerpt From his letter to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1816. https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/letter-to-samuel-kercheval/
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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