Most people, if asked why they hold the beliefs they do, will tell you that it’s because their beliefs are self-evidently objectively correct. If you then point out to them that a particular belief of theirs is clearly and demonstratively objectively wrong it will not make the slightest difference. They will insist that their belief is still correct and they will almost certainly get angry about it. But they will not change their mind.
As Razib Khan points out in Winning Isn’t Everything, Winning Your Team Is that’s because what matters is group cohesion. “It isn’t about the score up on the board, but standing with your team.” What matters is group cohesion.
It doesn’t matter if a belief is true or false. What matters is belonging to a group and holding the beliefs that are acceptable within that group. If someone’s group is made up of Flat Earthers then that person is almost certainly going to be a Flat Earther and no amount of logical argument is going to sway him on that. From that person’s point of view objective reality is unimportant. What is important is that believing in a Flat Earth cements his place within the group and brings major social benefits (and often material benefits as well). Being a Flat Earth denier in such a group would involve serious social costs, possibly even being ostracised. Compared to that truth is a very minor consideration.
This explains why it is exceedingly difficult to change other people’s minds even when one has marshalled overwhelmingly convincing evidence. It is always going to be next to impossible to change the mind of an individual because human beings are not by nature individuals. We are social animals. Membership in the group is everything.
This has obvious implications in the political sphere. It’s the reason politicians do not rely on logical aruments, they rely on emotion, and they rely on appealing to our desire to maintain our position within our group. They also rely on promises that are very close to outright bribery. A promise by a candidate to put extra money in our pockets by cutting our taxes or increasing our welfare payments does not challenge our beliefs and thus does not
endager our standing within our group. Greed is something we can easily rationalise away. Emotional appeals by politicians also not do usually challenge our standing within our group because they’re invariably so vague as to be meaningless.
So how can we actually change someone’s political beliefs? The answer is that mostly you can’t.
So how do the political beliefs of society as a whole change? There’s a wildly held theory that scientific paradigms don’t change when scientists adopt the new paradigm. They change when the adherents of the old paradigm die and are replaced by younger scientists who absorbed the new paradigm as students. It’s likely that this also applies to politics.
When I was younger I lived in inner-city Sydney in a vaguely bohemian vaguely arty social group. We were very left-wing and very socially liberal on many issues, but by today’s standards we were extraordinarily politically incorrect. If you went to that part of Sydney today you’d find that it’s still vaguely bohemian, vaguely arty and very left-wing. But you’d also find that it’s frighteningly politically correct. Many of the things we used to say would now get you run out of town on a rail, and probably reported to the police and arrested. What has changed is not that the people there have changed their opinions but that a new generation of much more intolerant vaguely bohemian, vaguely arty left-wingers has to a large extent displaced the previous group. Virtually all of the people I used to know there have died or moved away (I’m one of those who moved away). It’s not that trendy inner-city lefties have become more intolerant and more rigidly PC, it’s more that each new generation of trendy inner-city lefties is more intolerant and more rigidly PC. And the steadily declining cohorts of those previous generations who remain in those areas have learnt that if they don’t want to face severe social penalties they had better conform or else.
If you want to achieve real political change you can only do so by indoctrinating the young through the education system and the media. Once a person’s political beliefs have been formed you’ll find it exceptionally difficult to change them.
It’s a fairly depressing conclusion to come to but there it is.
And what about the election of Donald Trump? Doesn’t that prove that political views can be changed, that political paradigms can be shifted? In my view, no. It seems to me that Trump won by running an old-fashioned campaign based on bread-and-butter issues. For the Rust Belt voters who won him the election the issues were mostly economic – it was mostly about jobs. What has changed is that while these voters have not altered their political opinions they have changed their minds about which party represents their views and their interests. That in itself is extremely important.