Is Persuasion Dead?

By MATT MILLER

New York Times

June 4, 2005

Speaking just between us - between one who writes columns and those who read them - I've had this nagging question about the whole enterprise we're engaged in.

Is persuasion dead? And if so, does it matter?

The significance of this query goes beyond the feelings of futility I'll suffer if it turns out I've wasted my life on work that is useless. This is bigger than one writer's insecurities. Is it possible in America today to convince anyone of anything he doesn't already believe? If so, are there enough places where this mingling of minds occurs to sustain a democracy?

The signs are not good. Ninety percent of political conversation amounts to dueling "talking points." Best-selling books reinforce what folks thought when they bought them. Talk radio and opinion journals preach to the converted. Let's face it: the purpose of most political speech is not to persuade but to win, be it power, ratings, celebrity or even cash.

By contrast, marshaling 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.

I'm not the only one who amid this mess wonders if he shouldn't be looking at another line of work. A top conservative thinker called recently, dejected at the sight of Ann Coulter on the cover of Time. What's the point of being substantive, he cried, when all the attention goes to the shrill?

But the embarrassing truth is that we earnest chin-strokers often get it wrong anyway. Take me. I hadn't thought much about Iraq before I read Ken Pollack's book, "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq," a platonic ideal of careful analysis meant to persuade. It worked. I was persuaded! So what should we conclude when a talent like Pollack can convince us - and then the whole thing turns out to be based on a premise (W.M.D.) that is false?

If serious efforts to get it right can lead to tragic errors, why care about a culture of persuasion at all? On one level, everyone needs a good rationalization at the core of his professional life; mine holds that the struggle to think things through, even when we fail, is redeeming.

But beyond this, the gap between the cartoon of public life that the press and political establishment often serve up and the pragmatic open-mindedness of most Americans explains why so many people tune out - and how we might get them to tune back in. Alienation is the only intelligent response to a political culture that insults our intelligence.

The resurrection of persuasion will not be easy. Politicians who've learned to survive in an unforgiving environment may not feel safe with a less scripted style. Mass media outlets where heat has always sold more than light may not believe that creatively engaging on substance can expand their audience. But if you believe that meeting our collective challenges requires greater collective understanding, we've got to persuade these folks to try.

I'm guessing Ann Coulter isn't sweating this stuff. God willing, there's something else keeping her up nights. In the meantime, like Sisyphus, those who seek a better public life have to keep rolling the rock uphill. If you've read this far, maybe you're up for the climb, too.