Why have so few people changed their minds about Trump or Brexit?

What is the best way to persuade someone that they are mistaken, and why are people who engage in online debate so bad at it?

John Rentoul
Saturday 19 August 2017 16:20 BST
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Despite all the arguing, support for leaving the EU has barely faltered since the Brexit vote
Despite all the arguing, support for leaving the EU has barely faltered since the Brexit vote (PA)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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I have been away, which always allows a bit of perspective. As far as the eye can see, British politics is about Brexit. Even when journalists try to run a silly season story about Big Ben falling silent, Conservative MPs make it a story about Brexit. They want it to be brought back to bong us out of the EU at midnight on 29 March 2019.

But I cannot write about Brexit again and I suspect you do not want to read about it. From a foreign beach, all I can offer is a little clarity, which is that nothing has changed, as the Prime Minister once said. Despite all the fuss about the Government not knowing what it wants, all that matters, which is all that has mattered since 23 June last year, is what the other EU countries will let us have. We are supplicants at the court of Angela Merkel, and she is not that bothered.

What is interesting, though, is that nothing has changed. Nobody has changed their mind about Brexit. Or, if they have, they have been cancelled out by other people changing their mind in the opposite direction, leaving the opinion polls split within the margin of error of 52-48.

In the US, Donald Trump has turned out to be more awful than people who disliked him thought probable, and his approval rating has drifted downwards gently over his six months in office. Yet 39 per cent of Americans still have a favourable opinion of him (in a poll which found 2 per cent said they “haven’t heard enough about him” – which proves there are always the few who refuse to take surveys seriously).

People who are opposed to Brexit and to President Trump are reduced to exclaiming, "What does it take to make people realise their mistake?" Now that question – rather than the merits or otherwise of Brexit and Trump, which have been endlessly rehearsed – is the interesting bit.

My proudest moment this year was when a reader‏ wrote to say my article arguing against calling Trump a liar had “changed my opinion of something that I felt very sure of”. That doesn’t happen often, but is wonderful when it does. Obviously, I am happy if people like what I write because they agree with it, but if they like it because they disagree with it and have been persuaded, that is even better.

The late Norman Geras, the much missed blogger, liked to ask people: “Can you name a major moral, political or intellectual issue on which you’ve ever changed your mind?” I could name several: markets, the kibbutz movement, nuclear disarmament, vegetarianism and television. One of these days, I might explain my changes of mind, but my purpose here is to ask how a change of mind happens.

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly watches on nervously at Trump's Charlottesville press briefing

Obviously, my view of communist egalitarianism was changed by the experience of working on a kibbutz in the 1970s. It was neither very communist nor egalitarian, and the idea of collective child-rearing had been abandoned. But how do we change our minds about questions such as Europe or macroeconomics, when our experience is indirect or contradictory?

One of the best articles about this was by someone called Christina H, on the US website Cracked, who described herself as a Christian, non-white woman, and a former Republican. She explained that her changes of mind were gradual and came about partly because of social media. It was not her experience of arguing with people that persuaded her, however, but that of observing other people arguing online. “Most of what changed my mind wasn’t said to me at all. It was said to someone else while I quietly watched, eating popcorn.”

She pointed out that she would never say that she had recently changed her mind. She would just go quiet about it and then pretend that she had always thought what she now thinks. “If you’re persistent, and patient, and genuine, and reasonable, you’re probably making a difference already, even if no one will ever tell you so… They will never tell anyone, but they will stop believing and parroting one sexist argument for ever. Maybe they will treat women a little better.”

It is surprising, given that persuasion is the essence of politics, how little politicians and their tribes of supporters seem to think about how to do it. And it is no wonder that people’s opinions of Brexit and Trump have hardly shifted, despite – or, rather, because of – the partisan fury on both sides.

The polarisation and intensity of political debate in Britain and America seems to entrench attitudes on both sides. But perhaps there are people watching the raucous shouting match and perhaps the arguments that are slowly, quietly changing people’s minds are the patient and reasonable voices rather than the loudest and rudest. I hope so.

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