The Goal of Political Debate

In order to develop a sense of strategy and tactics you have to understand the nature of the game. Let me repeat again, something worth repeating. The goal of political organization in a representative democracy is to win elections. Political organizing, political debate, "demonstrations", "protests", letter writing campaigns are all designed to influence public opinion in favor of your positions and/or candidates.

The next thing to understand is that political activism tends to push you to one side of the spectrum or the other. There are no "activist moderates". Or at any rate, there are damned few. So for simplicity, we can divide the US political environment into activist liberals, activist conservatives and everybody else. Your opponent is the activist conservative. You must understand the reason you engage him in debate, in order to understand what is to be gained by doing so.

The activist conservative – especially trained Republican cadres – are not trying to learn anything. They know what they believe. The better one’s have reasoned positions based on some semblance of reality. The worst of them – whom we have seen in spades – believe what they believe and to hell with evidence. In every case, the conservative is not going to be convinced by anything you say to him or show him. If your are on a message board to win conservative converts you are wasting your time.

The best example I can think of is a witness being cross examined. The witness looks at the lawyer asking the questions, and tries to convince him of the truth of the witnesses testimony. The witness doesn’t understand the game. The "fact finder" isn’t the other side’s lawyer. It is the jury. The opposing lawyer doesn’t get paid to "discover the truth". He gets paid to represents his client’s interests. The truth is certainly relevant to that. If you’re client is guilty, and the state has evidence to prove it, your client needs to know if its time to make a deal.

But when the jury is in the box, a decent trial lawyer is communicating to the jury, not the witness. I don’t give a shit what the witness says, what he thinks, or what he thinks he knows – except to the extent that what he says persuades the jury. I am there to do any one of a number of things. Impeach his credibility, by showing him to be a liar, or to have misperceived, or to have an interest in the outcome, or to be simply mistaken. Or I am there to elicit answers that build my case – as opposed to the case of my opponent.

To be effective in public debate as an activist, you must stop being a witness, and start being a lawyer. When you get a conserevative apostle trying to "convince" you, you need to treat him like a witness. When you get a conservative who understands the game, you need to treat him like the opposing counsel. The goal is not to convince the other side’s lawyer, or the witnesses. The goal is to convince the jury – in this case the "jury of public opinion". They are also known as voters.

Now I don’t want to seem totally unconerned with "truth" or with the process of learning new things or of being exposed to other ideas. If you are totally dogmatic, and slavishly advance your agenda without ever listening to anyone, you will find that you are less effective. In fact, policy is frequently the result of compromise, and the debate advances as you respond to the better ideas of the other side. Remember. They aren’t totally wrong. Some conservative ideas are worthy of a serious hearing. When an appropriate opponent comes along – a reasonable person willing to listen – take the opportunity to "talk turkey" with that person. But learn to know the difference. Those people are rare.

Also, in your day to day life, you may find it entertaining and even useful to have meaningful discussions with conservatives who are capable of them. When you are at work as an activist and organizer, your goal is to win the middle. Your goal is to advance your cause. You should never lose site of that goal.

So strategy and tactics in the context of political debate is the same as it is in any forum where issues are debated. It is to win over the fact finder, whether that is the jury, public opinion or the actual voters. Everything you do, everything you write, every position you take, every tactic you use, is "on stage" and affects the person in the middle who is watching. He is who you are communicating with. Your communication with the other side is for the purpose of making a point with the audience, not with the person with whom you are arguing.

With that in mind, you are ready to delve into the details of strategy and tactics…

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