You can’t reason someone out of something that they weren’t reasoned into in the first place.
—Mark Twain

Smart people say that smart people don’t argue politics with friends, but that’s not entirely true. Smart people don’t argue politics with anybody.
In theory, argument presupposes that both sides are receptive. In reality, nobody ever changed their political stripes on the strength of conversation, and anybody who thinks they can beat that fact is not smart. Even so, with another election cycle hard upon us, we’re all doomed to ride a strident cyclone of squabbling scolds spouting gouts of sound and fury signifying only that smug preconceptions are impervious to debate.

“ …in the opinion of neuroscience, facts are pretty much useless in political debate.”

It’s not that people can’t change their minds. Lee or Levis. Coke or Pepsi. “60 Minutes” or “Father Brown.” We’re a fickle crew by nature. And yet when talk turns to topics like politics and religion, to include related doctrines like environmentalism, humanism and social equity, we quite ferociously don’t want to know any more than we already know.

If that’s shallow, it’s also an impulse deeply rooted in our individual and collective psyches. It’s the opinion of psychology that our worldviews begin emerging shortly after we do, and they’re continuously molded and reenforced by our particular social environments. By adulthood, our opinions on just about every big-ticket topic have hardened into personal identity. What we think about immigration and gun control aren’t merely viewpoints, they’re cornerstones of our good character, proof of our moral rectitude, solid anchors in a turbulent world.

More than that, our beliefs define our group identity. We’re social creatures, after all, instinctively looking to the tribe for protection, and shared values provide a sense of safety and belonging. “We Believe” signs and “MAGA” hats aren’t campaign gear, they’re clan totems, badges of membership. Disloyalty feels dangerous, defection unthinkable.

“We don’t want to believe it, so we don’t. The brain is great like that.”

That’s why, in the opinion of neuroscience, facts are pretty much useless in political debate. When someone questions our judgment on a controversial subject, even nicely, maybe even inadvertently, it feels like a personal attack, an insult to our virtue, a threat to our sense of security, of affinity, of self. We respond defensively, digging in deeper, which is why political argument so often ends in raised voices and broken bonds.

Presented with facts inconsistent with our beliefs, we experience the uncomfortable phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. To restore psychological symmetry, we employ cognitive bias, quickly, easily, almost subconsciously disregarding or discrediting inharmonious information. It’s a self-protective mechanism stamped into our DNA, and it’s how we can get excited about candidates we know to be skunks. We don’t want to believe it, so we don’t. The brain is great like that.
Words may be helpless before preconceptions, but some people can’t help themselves. Arguing is in their blood. For what it’s worth, there’s a tactic or three that might hold out a fighting chance to change an intractable mind.

Give them an out. The only thing the argumentative hate worse than being contradicted is losing, and they’ll collapse into nervous catalepsy before they’ll admit they’re wrong. Rather than ridiculing their position, acknowledge it as reasonable under different circumstances. Their belief is perfectly valid, see, just impractical under prevailing conditions through no fault of their own. This may or may not resolve their cognitive dissonance on the front end, opening a channel for real communication.

Don’t make it personal. A sharp advocate doesn’t frame the debate in terms of what “I think” or “I know” or “I saw on a cable news channel.” As much as possible, make it about what somebody else, anybody else, thinks, knows, or saw on TV. If that will do little to improve credibility, it might do a lot to head off a nasty grudge match.

Feel their pain. When someone becomes emotionally invested in their opinion on, say, the future of the penny, it can feel to them like the future of the penny is critical to their own health and happiness. Commiserate. Admire their passion. Share their angst. When the “but” comes they may take it better coming from someone they consider sympathetic.

Study up. True, facts won’t win the day, but they may shake an opponent’s resolve. Psychologists have identified a curious condition they call, deep breath, the “illusion of explanatory depth.” Most people think they know a lot more about most topics than they really do. Half a magazine article in the dentist’s office or half an hour chatting over appetizers with the crowd from the office, and they’re experts on fracking, pharmacology and the First Amendment. The trick here is not to ask why one thinks what he does, but how what he thinks would work in practice. Make him explain his reasoning, support the thin veneer of his opinion. Odds are the emperor will quickly discover himself starkers, which is when a few deftly inserted facts may induce him to question his stance. Not checkmate, but he’ll have lost his queen.

People almost never change their minds on controversial issues, but when they do, it’s usually for one of two reasons: The first is fear. Selling ideas on fear is cynical, destructive and really effective. If Gen Z is bummed out all the time, it’s because both sides of virtually every controversy promise certain doom if they don’t get their way.

The second, sigh, is resignation. We may hate an idea, but when that idea becomes law and there’s no longer a single thing we can do about it, many people will simply decide to stop hating it and look for reasons to like it. It’s another of Nature’s home remedies for cognitive dissonance.

Smart people avoid political argument assiduously, but they also know that there are plenty of, er, other people who won’t make it easy. Facing yet another interminable, insufferable and unwinnable dispute, smart people steer into safer waters. Creamy smooth? Or crunchy?

I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics, a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.
—Samuel Clemens