Skip to content

Miller on Persuasion

I’m enjoying Matt Miller’s run as Maureen O’Dowd’s stand-in at the NYT.

From Saturday’s op-ed page:

[M]arshaling a case to persuade those who start from a different position is a lost art. Honoring what’s right in the other side’s argument seems a superfluous thing that can only cause trouble, like an appendix. Politicos huddle with like-minded souls in opinion cocoons that seem impervious to facts.

The politicians and the press didn’t kill off persuasion intentionally, of course; it’s more manslaughter than murder. Persuasion just isn’t relevant to delivering elections or eyeballs. Pols have figured out that to get votes you don’t need to change minds. Even when they want to, modern media make it hard. They give officials seconds to make their point, ignore their ideas in favor of their poll numbers or showcase a clash of caricatures, believing this is the only way to make “debate” entertaining. Elections may turn on emotions like hope and fear anyway, but with persuasion’s passing, there’s no alternative.

There’s only one problem: governing successfully requires influencing how people actually think. Yet when the habits of persuasion have been buried, the possibilities of leadership are interred as well. That’s why Bill Clinton’s case on health care could be bested by savage “Harry and Louise” ads. And why, even if George Bush’s Social Security plan had been well conceived, the odds were always stacked against ambitious reform.

Miller doesn’t reach the limit of his argument, which is this: Persuasion isn’t the key to success in Washington; it’s the key to successful democratic self-governance. The original, old-fashioned, Enlightenment idea of the United States demands that ordinary citizens be able to recognize and process facts. If the marketplace of ideas fails, the country is susceptible to government from above, imposed, as it was centuries ago, by a monarch (or would-be monarch) who rules by divine right. Miller shouldn’t be so quick to acquit the politicians of murder in this case. And he shouldn’t assume that large-scale Social Security “reform” is dead and buried.