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Why You Can't Change Anyone's Political Opinions

Why facts are often irrelevant in other people's political beliefs and opinions.

A long time ago, I realized that trying to change someone’s political opinion is about as productive as counting the hairs on your head and may lead to tearing them out.

Let me tell you how it happened. I was going to Washington, D.C. to protest against the then-president’s war policy. My then-boyfriend’s mother was flabbergasted. “How can you do this to the father of our country?” she asked. It was my turn to be gobsmacked and she elaborated, “He is our father, and we must always support him.” “But what if he is wrong?” I asked. She brushed away my question as though it was a nasty mosquito. “You respect our father out of patriotism and I don’t want to hear another word about it,” she said, thus ending the conversation.

I couldn’t stop thinking about her reaction, and I wondered why I had never thought of the president as my father. I already had a father, but he was pretty non-assertive. My mother was the clear authority figure when I grew up.

I began asking people who the authority figure was in their family, and how they reacted. Did they have a strong father whose word was law, or an autocratic mother who instilled fear in them? Did the parent claim to do things “for their own good” and to protect them? Were they instructed in loyalty to the family, and to never speak ill of the family or authority figures? Did bonding with powerful authority figures make them feel special and encourage them to demonize or demean others who disagreed with them?

I thought it was equally important and telling to ask if they obeyed the authority, rebelled against it, fought with the authority figures, or defended them to errant siblings who were rebellious? Did the strong parent make them feel safe? Were they diminished for showing weakness? How did the authority figures deal with family members who crossed them or disagreed with them? Were they defiant and critical, as I had been, or acquiescing? Perhaps they cowered or were fearful. I asked if they identified with the authority figures and copied their behavior when they went on to become parents? I asked if perhaps there was no clear authority figure when they grew up. And whether they were encouraged to think independently? Did they grow up without fear of their parents? Was it expected to belong to the family’s political party and religion and carry the same beliefs, loyalty, and attitudes?

I was stunned to listen to the answers and realized that there was a direct correlation between how a person was raised, and how they reacted to political authority figures and their policies. It extended to how they voted. It wasn’t about logic. It was about childhood, early life, and emotions. Often the facts were irrelevant.

That’s why I think you can’t easily change someone’s opinion politically. It’s not about facts. It’s about feelings. It’s not about what’s going on currently. It’s about what happened a long time ago, during childhood. How were you raised, in terms of authority?