Forum — From the February 2018 issue

The Minds of Others

The art of persuasion in the age of Trump

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Return to Reason

By David Bromwich

Marx wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” He was speaking as a revolutionary who wanted his readers to pass from metaphysics to action. Persuasion, as we commonly view it, recognizes no such dichotomy: it wants both to interpret and to change the world. It may be defined as the process of making people think and act as they did not before; yet it has to work in the dense medium of existing beliefs.

At the far reach of belief — belief at its most tenacious — lies conviction. The Victorian political writer Walter Bagehot devoted a remarkable essay, “On the Emotion of Conviction,” to the state of mind that word denotes:

A hot flash seems to burn across the brain. Men in these intense states of mind have altered all history, changed for better or worse the creed of myriads, and desolated or redeemed provinces and ages. Nor is this intensity a sign of truth, for it is precisely strongest in those points in which men differ most from each other.

On a continuum with the hot flash of conviction are all the milder gradations of belief: leaning, tendency, inclination. Bagehot took care to notice that conviction, though it seems inextricable from our nature, is neither good nor bad in itself. We should not suppose that the best society imaginable is the one containing the largest number of persons of unshakable conviction.

Politicians seek to plant convictions in their constituents for various reasons, some of them reckless or self-serving. They stir up anger at a useless sacrifice, or resentment at an empty promise. Yet to admit that politics is a realm of emotions is not to concede that its techniques are necessarily irrational. Emotions have their own cognitive work to perform, and in ordinary life they often cooperate with reasonable thinking. A demagogue is defined less by the content of his appeal than by the hectic speed and intensity with which he exploits ready-made feelings. The most dangerous conservative demagogue is one who blames a vulnerable group for a reversal of fortune whose actual causes are complex. The most dangerous liberal is one who angrily invokes the sufferings of the oppressed while doing little to combat the forces of oppression.

If, without demagoguery, you want to bring national sentiment to your side, you must first demonstrate that you respect the citizens of the nation. The road to honest persuasion passes through conciliation, and this requires an initial presumption of goodwill. Opponents must be recognized as people who are not vicious by nature, even as they are warned candidly about the wrongs they may commit. Lincoln, in his speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, confessed that he hated slavery for the “monstrous injustice” of the institution, but the same speech allowed that the Southern people “are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up.”

The trust of democracy is that if you give reasons honestly and your reasons pass the test of serving the public good, the voters will master your argument and come to approve it. But that depends on an initial trust that persuasion can sometimes occur, a thing that is surprisingly hard to prove. We know that people come to think in ways they had never thought before, but the cause of such a shift may be a religious conversion, an intense friendship, anything rather than a conscious decision arrived at through argument. All we can say is that something has changed in someone’s beliefs; how it happened remains mysterious to a degree. Still, a generous trust in the efficacy of persuasion is essential to the social contract in a system of self-government. The anxiety that many Americans feel today — it is a detectable irritant in half the op-eds published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal — comes from a suspicion that we have lost our trust in the possibility of persuasion. Have Americans stopped trying to debate one another?

Trust in persuasion seems hardly separable from the necessary minimum of trust in government. What is the Constitution if not a system for managing disagreement and convergence, a system that leaves open the possibility of conflict without everlasting bitterness and reproach? Between the Forties and the Sixties, most Americans did apparently share such a trust. Their government had saved them from the worst effects of the Great Depression (which they could witness in Europe), led the country to victory in a war most believed was necessary, created systems of social insurance and interstate highways, and made sure that clean and inexpensive housing was available for millions. Government was a major source of the belief that American society was improving, that one’s children had a decent chance to be better off than oneself.

Since the Seventies, by contrast, distrust of government — accompanied by a loss of belief in the persuasive methods by which government must gain legitimacy — has become a common, if not the dominant, national sentiment. A major cause of the change was the personality of Ronald Reagan, who disparaged the federal government he ran while claiming descent from the heroic age of the New Deal and the Second World War. Did he say that ceding control of the Panama Canal was a betrayal of US sovereignty and a threat to our vital interests? He seemed a politician of such transparent simplicity that he could not be saying these things from ideological narrowness or obliviousness. The force of his personality carried the weight of an argument that was otherwise held together by spurious anecdotes and half-baked theories. And yet his evocation of a “shining city on a hill” answered sufficiently to people’s desire to restore the promise of a better time.

People naturally look to their self-interest, but most Americans want to be part of something bigger, and politicians are aware of this fact. The classic response of the liberal is to broaden our sense of community beyond tribe or sect or social class; for the conservative, it is to strengthen our allegiance to a common past. But neither tendency can altogether exclude the other. The penalty for doing so is total inertia at one extreme and totalitarian innovation at the other. In the Clinton and Obama years, the way of community was called globalization, something people were not sure they wanted, even if they could be sure what it meant. Meanwhile, the shining city on a hill had been emptied of practical meaning long before the conservative movement of the Eighties was swallowed up in the flailing nationalism of Trump.

Today, we are living at a hollow moment, a protracted and uncertain interregnum in which citizens are searching for leaders and both major parties are groping for a principle they can stand by. Any responsible political power that emerges — a power capable of imparting conviction to people who think as citizens — will speak a language that does not take passion for cogency, or enthusiasm for proof.

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