Easy Chair — From the November 2017 issue

Preaching to The Choir

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The primary assumption behind the idea that we shouldn’t preach to the choir is that one’s proper audience is one’s enemies, not one’s allies. This becomes especially true during election season, the prevailing view being that elections are won not by focusing on the base but by flipping the opposition. By this reasoning, all that I write and say during those cycles should be pitched at my adversaries, to recruit them. I have often been admonished that my statements should give no offense to strangers with whom I have little in common, that I should say things — I’m not sure what these cottony words would be, or whether I contain them — that will not irritate or alienate. I should spend my efforts on people who disagree passionately with me, because why waste time on those with whom I’ve already formed relationships and share interests?

One of the most excruciating rites of recent presidential elections was the debates in which “undecided” or swing voters were brought in to ask questions of the candidates. The premise behind the spectacle is that candidates win by competing for those not sure of whether they are for or against civil rights, tax cuts for the rich, and so on. Yet much evidence suggests that political organizations benefit most from motivating those who already agree with them, and that the Democrats in particular find the most success by pursuing people who don’t know whether they’ll vote, rather than how they’ll vote. This means reaching constituents who, historically, have been less likely to go to the polling booth: the poor, the young, the non-white. Republicans know this, which is why they’ve worked hard to perfect voter suppression tactics that target those populations.

Nevertheless, centrist Democrats often go wooing those who don’t support them, thereby betraying those who do. It’s as though you ditched not only your congregation but your credo in the hope of making inroads among believers of some other faith. You think you’re recruiting; really, you’re losing your religion. This has been true with welfare “reform,” with the war on terror, with economic policy, with the fantasy of winning over “the white working class”: time and again, misguided attempts to bring in new voters have offended existing constituencies.

This year, in an effort to appeal to a more conservative demographic, some Democrats went so far as to slacken their commitment to reproductive rights, dismissing them as “identity politics” and deeming them less important than economic justice. As many women have pointed out, however, such a stance constitutes a failure to understand that until and unless this half of the population can control their bodies and plan their families, they cannot be economically equal. The question is one of both strategy and principle: Do you win by chasing those who don’t share your views, or by serving and respecting those already with you? Is the purpose of the choir to sing to the infidels or inspire the faithful? What happens if the faithful stop showing up, donating, doing the work?

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