Polarization and Persuasion
A pair of tepid jobs reports, landmark Supreme Court decisions on health-care and immigration laws, and an unprecedented barrage of negative ads have shaped the opening months of the fall presidential campaign. The impact on the horse race: virtually none. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney remain in a deadlocked contest, tied at 47 percent among registered voters and basically where they stood in late May.
The polls aren’t moving much anymore. The upshot? Most people have already made up their minds.
At this point, 74 percent of all voters are “definitely” supporting Obama or Romney, and 12 percent say it is unlikely that they will switch from one to the other, making the race a settled issue for nearly nine in 10 voters. For both campaigns, such a high level of early commitment shifts the focus to turnout — and to which side can muster the most effective get-out-the-vote operation.
This is one of polarization’s most interesting side effects. Not only do we have growing cultural (and spatial!) distance between leftists and conservatives, not only do we have legislative gridlock—but we also have thinner public debates. The next few months will be a fight over that solitary voter out of ten who hasn’t yet made up his or her mind. This heightens the rhetorical stakes and incentivizes intensely targeted messaging.
In other words, this dynamic goes a long way towards undercutting productive debate. It goes a long way towards making democracy less robust and less worthwhile.
I suspect that this is the primary factor driving public pessimism about our governing institutions. They don’t work because we don’t think it’s worth the effort to engage with others anymore. We’ve given up on the very possibility that persuasion can make a difference. If it’s clear that the Right has become more ideologically radical than the Left insofar as polarization’s content is concerned, I suspect that both political wings suffer from an approximately equal level of disdain for the other. Leftists and conservatives are equally dismissive of their opponents.
And while I don’t have a solution or a nice, neat hand-wring to tie this to a close, it recalls a passage from Bryan Garsten’s Saving Persuasion, an EXCELLENT piece of recent political theory scholarship [underlining added]:
Persuasion does not rest upon a commitment to any underlying agreement. Rhetorical appeals need not and, in fact, must not take the intention to think reasonably for granted. They frequently start from premises or attitudes shared only by members of the present audience. Often the rely on premises that are not even made explicit; these premises are supplied by the audience itself. In trying to bring an audience from the conventional wisdom to thoughts or intentions they might not otherwise have adopted, rhetoric intends to wield influence over them. In this sense rhetoric is a form of rule…
The way in which persuasion aims to rule, however, is distinctive. While the word “rhetoric” as used today often refers to one of the vices of democratic speech, the term changes its valence when defined as an effort to persuade. Persuasion in the strict sense identifies a way of influencing that is neither manipulating nor pandering. The speaker who manipulates his audience so as to bring them to a belief or action without their consent, as Kant thought orators moved men “like machines,” has not persuaded but coerced. In contrast, the speaker who merely finds out where his audience itches and then scratches there, as Plato thought pandering Athenian orators did, has not managed to change his listeners’ minds at all. To truly persuade people is to induce them to change their own beliefs and desires in light of what has been said. Though we speak of “being persuaded” in the passive voice, we recognize the difference between being persuaded and being indoctrinated or brainwashed; the difference lies in the active independence that is preserved when we are persuaded.
There’s a lot more (in academia, there is always a lot more) to his argument, but this is more than enough to set up the point I’m chasing. Persuasion is only really possible when we share some minimum amount of conviction with our opponents. Think about it: we cannot persuade those who already fully agree with us. Nor can we persuade those with whom we share nothing. Persuasion can only operate in an environment of partial agreement—and that happens to be the only environment in which it is helpful.
After all this prelude, I’m sorry to report that there’s no crisp way to measure just how much disagreement we can handle between interlocutors before discussion breaks down—but I’m fairly confident that American public debate has passed that point.
Update: This post on polarization from Grist’s David Roberts provides some useful quantitative background to my argument.
Conor P. Williams has a lot more to say about this, but it’s going in the dissertation. If you got all the hit singles for free, you’d never buy the whole album, etc, etc. Williams writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. Find more on Facebook, Twitter, and at http://www.conorpwilliams.