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How to ask politicians tough questions

This guide briefly explains how to ask politicians and political leaders tough questions. These are the types of questions that politicians fear, the ones that will reveal the flaws in their policies and their lies. Unfortunately, the mainstream media is completely corrupt and refuses to ask really difficult questions. That means that the rest of us have to fill in the gap. After asking one of your questions, upload the response to video sharing sites and promote it.

(Note: to save time, the question authority topic has some sample questions, both generic and for specific politicians.)

Principles:
1. Choose an area you're familiar with
2. Research their positions
3. Look for flaws, lies, or misleading statements
4. Be polite but adversarial
5. Understand your adversary
6. Anticipate their answers
7. Get to the point
8. Don't rant
9. Be concise and understandable but specific
10. Provide supplemental information
11. Have follow-ups

Choose an area you're familiar with
This site is very familiar with immigration matters, so that's the topic we concentrate on. You should concentrate on an area you're familiar with. However, make sure that the topic you ask about is applicable to the person being asked the question. For instance, asking a national politician from one city about an issue specific to another city won't be effective, unless that politician is somehow involved with that issue or is responsible for dealing with it.

Research their positions
One of the greatest mistakes questioners make is what seems to be asking the first thing that comes to their mind, oblivious to a politician's stance on the issue. For instance, one of the change dot gov questions submitted to Barack Obama was the following: "How will the administration improve public transit?" As of 1/3/09, that had around 2300 up votes and only around 300 down votes, despite it being too general and despite the fact that five minutes of searching would have revealed a great deal of information with Obama's positions and various statements on the issue. Not only that, but as he'd already announced several nominations for positions that would deal with transit issues, the positions and past statements of those people could have been used to craft a question. Don't rush into asking a question: take the time to look through as many policy papers, interviews, and the like as you can.

Look for flaws, lies, or misleading statements
Assuming you choose an issue you're familiar with, you shouldn't have much trouble finding an endless series of lies and misleading statements for virtually any politician. Other things to look for are what politicians don't say. For instance, see question #4 here. Those who don't follow immigration issues that closely might not realize that Obama has a habit of presenting a false choice by ignoring a third option. Asking a question that reveals a politician hasn't been telling the whole truth is very powerful and will cost them credibility with their followers.

Politicians are almost always allowed to state their positions without facing a contrary argument; your goal should be to provide that contrary argument and force them to defend their policies and proposals.

If you're dealing with a topic you aren't familiar with, you can still craft questions from the politician's opponents or others, but in that case you need to be sure that their arguments are sound.

No matter the topic, the questions should be forceful and designed to reveal flaws or lies. Simply asking a politician for their positions on something will almost always result in little more than a stock speech.

Be polite but adversarial
The goal with tough questions is to make the politician look bad, at the same time as you don't make yourself look bad. Asking rude/snarky/sarcastic questions about entirely personal matters will have the opposite effect: it will make you look bad at the same time as possibly engendering sympathy for the politician. See this example of the type of questions you should avoid.

However, always bear in mind that politicians work for you, not the other way around. While you should be polite and use their titles as appropriate, you also need to be demanding of an answer and willing to engage them in a debate if they give you that opportunity. Bear in mind that it isn't necessary to adopt an angry tone to ask a tough question. Friendliness can be used to throw a politician off guard, as long as you keep the goal in mind. Within reason, be "passive aggressive" if it would be effective. For instance: "You said [Position A]. But, I can't understand how that would work considering [all these other, contrary things]. Is there any way you could explain your position on [Position A], given [all these other, contrary things]?" Depending on the questioner and their skill, some people might find that grating, so the direct approach might be best in many cases.

Understand your adversary
If your question is for a specific politician, try to understand their personality type and their various strengths and weaknesses. For instance, McCain has a much less fragile personality than Obama. The latter subtly showed himself to be easily rattled on a few occasions, it's just that no one pushed him hard enough to make that obvious. A series of pointed questions asked by an experienced questioner and designed to show that Obama - someone promoted as having professorial-level thinking - had not thought something through might have caused some sort of emotional response. Provoking an emotional response from McCain - such as by questioning his honor - would probably be counter-productive, as he turned it around on the questioner.

Anticipate their answers
Almost all politicians will try to answer a question with a stock speech or meaningless blather. You need to craft the question in such a way as to make that very difficult. For instance, the transit question above would simply result in a stock speech. On the other hand, a very specific question about something very arcane would simply result in the politician saying they'd look into it. That might be enough in some cases, but unless you're willing to follow-up later it's best to get some sort of answer right then.

A good question should box the politician in to a small set of possible answers, such as "Yes" or "No". It might be helpful to stress that you expect one of a desired set of answers, although unfairly restricting the set of possible answers might backfire. For instance, asking for "yes"/"no" to a question that has multiple answers might result in a speech like: "I'm afraid I can't answer that so simply, as it's a very complex question with many shades of gray and in order to provide the greatest service to you and my other constituents all I can say is that my position is [insert stock speech here]".

And, bear in mind that one of the favorites tools politicians use is to play word games. You need to craft the question to avoid giving them that option. See the example here.

Get to the point
For a contrary example, see this question. She spent at least 30 seconds on unnecessary introductory material. While introductions like that might throw some politicians off guard, with someone who's experienced like McCain all it did was take up time, time that could have been better spent providing more facts about the topic of the question.

Don't rant
The goal is to ask a question and get an answer. Simply ranting will result in a response along the lines of, "I understand your concerns and I'll have a staff member look into it. However, [insert stock speech here]". Ranting, stunts, and the like might make you feel better, and might endear you to some subgroup, but it is not effective. See this example, which had no effect on McCain whatsoever.

Be concise and understandable but specific
Try to cut as much useless information and verbage out of the question as possible. Specific dates, citations, etc. can be provided on accompanying material. At the same time, retain any information that's necessary for the question. Bear in mind that not everyone will be as familiar with terms and the topic as you are, so provide some sort of topic sentence or similar. In some cases, relating your question to a current issue might be very effective in grabbing attention and might avoid having to provide a great deal of introductory material. For instance, a question about financial regulations might start with: "As the Wallstreet bailout shows..."

That said, if the politician is supposedly an expert in something, you can be very specific if you're also an expert in that field. Those who hear the question live might not have a clue as to what the two of you are discussing, but all the background information can be provided later on after you report on the answer and upload it to a video sharing site. That assumes that the topic has some relevance either to large numbers of people or can be used to decrease the politician's credibility.

Provide supplemental information
Don't provide highly-specific information, citations, a long list of names or dates, and so forth in your question. Instead, put a longer, footnoted version of the question on a sheet of paper and make copies. In your question, reference the sheet, and perhaps hold it in your hand as a prop. However, the paper should only be for supplemental information; if you rely on it for the meat of the question the politician will say something like, "I'll respond after I've reviewed your information."

Have follow-ups
As discussed above, anticipate their response and roll it into the question. However, also be prepared for getting into a back and forth with the politician and try to anticipate questions you'll ask based on various responses. You or others can also ask follow-up questions at a later date based on the answer to the original question. When uploading the response to the web, provide possible follow-ups that others can ask.

Other tags: explainer

Sat, 01/03/2009 - 15:11 · Importance: 29

Thu, 01/08/2009 - 14:38
Arthur Gustason

WHY DO THEY GET MONEY FROM USE WHEN THEY DIDN'T PUT ANY MONEY IN???If I WENT TO THEIR COUNTRY THEY WOULD THINK I WAS NUTS IF I ASKED FOR MONEY. THE PEOPLE IN OFFICE DON'T LIVE ON THE MONEY I SAVED MAKING 40,000 A YEAR WHEN COST OF LIVING IS GO FASTER THEN INCOME.THEY GET FREE PILLS AND DOCTORS WE DON;T.

Mon, 02/09/2009 - 22:36
randombutler

So, this is essentially fan fiction about how you'd repeat Republican talking points to Obama's face while almost hiding the fact that you're just repeating Republican talking points? I appreciate the attempt to introduce the appearance of thoughtful questioning in this bizarre guide, but to people like me it sets off contradiction alarms when I see ideas that amount to "how to ask tough (but fair) questions of those lying Democrats from a fair Republican point of view because you are right." In other words, this whole write-up of yours in an exercise in contradictory internal logic, with the points being made about what's essentially argumentative strategy not being applicable to the premise of the article itself. How do you like them apples?