Is Persuasion Dead?

In the New York Times, columnist Matthew Miller asks a compelling question:

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? ... 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.

Dig in and read the rest. Then, come back here and... Discuss.

  • Bill Holmer (unverified)

    Maybe we need a new blog. How about

  • Gregor (unverified)

    It's very geometric. Picture if you will those images from your high school classes. When everything is reduced to us and them, when a line is drawn, there are only two sides. Thought doesn't come from a side, it comes from an angle, a perspective. An argument is a point, but we're constantly being given this image of lines, which is an insult to the circle of life. And everyone knows a circle needs three points. Once we have three points, we're on a plane, like a piece of paper, so now things can be done. Well, maybe not, because there are all those points off the plane to consider. Those points on another page altogether.

    Mr. Miller nails it. We're no longer thinking. We are deciding. We have decided and we are convinced. We have convictions. That is the issue at hand with the Radical Right's insistence on imposing their convictions on others. Once their actions are declared of divine origin, they refuse to consider any humane arguments [and the "e" is no typo]. Do they consider that tens of thousands of Iraqis have died as a result of this war? Does it matter in the least as we spread democracy? [I'm not convinced we are spreading democracy. I'm not even convinced we are fostering democracy here in the US. But I don't doubt their conviction.]

    With these lines being drawn, we are seeing the destruction of the individual. I see so many Zom-Bushes toeing the party line, their church's line. The fetus is held hostage while numerous crimes are perpetuated, but they are doing it for "babies." The patriotic loyalists who refuse to doubt that these leaders have anything but good intentions behind their deeds, rather then see selfish interests run rampant.

    Now that corporations are taking charge in a way not seen since the Great Depression, we no longer consider what's best, only what's cheapest and profits make perfect.

  • Terry (unverified)

    Step 1: Everyone on the left must read "The Art of War", the otherside already has and has taken it to heart. Fact is, if you have never worked near the top in a large corporate enviroment then you probably don't know your enemy. You must know your opponent intimately. You must be able to argue from "their point of view" to be able to find the smaller vulnerable points to chip away at using "their" vernacular, couched in their imagery and terms. Remember, your enamy has all the tools and techniques they learned at Harvard business school and is applying them to defeat YOU. Your enemy has advanced degrees on "how to defeat you" through marketing (propaganda), yet you can be victorious. We defeated this same Nixon crowd the first time, but they learned important lessons. That is why you will not see a draft. That is why for ten years they have worked to muzzel and control the press. Sunshine defeated them and they will work to not let that happen again. FOCUS on visibility, work to get your press back "on the job" of being investigative reporters. Visibility, Focus, Visibility, focus focus. Visibility of their actions is all the persuasive power you need.

  • Bert Lowry (unverified)

    I don’t think persuasion is dead. I do think there has been a change of focus. In some ways, it’s analogous to religion. Talk radio and other partisan outlets are preaching to the converted, but they’re doing it to keep them converted.

    In order to keep a segment of your true believers from drifting towards the other side, you need to constantly reinforce their faith. The right does this very well. This is comparable to preaching. When you go to church, most of the people around you already share the faith that their pastor or priest is espousing. That faith is maintained, in part, through the sermons.

    Contrast that with missionary work. A mission convinces people who have different beliefs to adopt your own. Sermonizing isn’t effective by itself. The missionaries must become a part of the community. They must build personal relationships and earn trust. Once someone's been converted, he’ll attend services that maintain their faith.

    So, does Rush convince many liberals to move to the right? I doubt it. But I think he does keep a lot of wishy-washy conservatives from moving left. And he does keep the conversation away from issues where the left has traction.

  • dispossessed (unverified)

    "It's very geometric. Picture if you will those images from your high school classes. When everything is reduced to us and them, when a line is drawn, there are only two sides. Thought doesn't come from a side, it comes from an angle, a perspective. An argument is a point, but we're constantly being given this image of lines, which is an insult to the circle of life."

    I think this analogy is positively brilliant.

    Though it seems you go on mostly, almost merely, to defend taking a single side. I see little if anything else here on every day, on every issue and way.

    In fact, I was hammered on just that point, just this past week, for not choosing solely one or another side.

    At any rate, I think the answer to the question is yes, persuasion is dead. Just last evening I read an op-ed from Jerome Groopman, a noted doctor and medical writer, to much these points on the issue of stem cell research, and even reading I knew it was hopeless for him to try to talk across those lines.

    And though all the other comments assert that this line is drawn rigidly on only one (that would be "the other") side, believe me, for those of us somewhere circling, it does not seem so.

  • glenlivid (unverified)

    Of course persuasion isn't dead; maybe this guy is just a really crappy writer.

    Four years ago I was on my way to becoming a conservative republican. I had a good job, made decent money, and really just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t care about other people or their problems, and I didn't care about politics.

    Concerned liberal friends (and a couple of communists) spent a great deal of time talking to me, patiently, as I rattled off my fed-up dissertations. Then they would tell me how they saw the world. Eventually, it really started to take hold. I realized I was just being a selfish asshole, and that no way to live one’s life.

    As the 2004 election was looming, I used to talk to anyone that I could about why they should voted for Kerry instead of Bush. It was amazing how often people were genuinely moved to change their stance. Of course, there were always the people that became visibly angry and started to shout at me; these people need more than what I can offer (shock treatment, drugs, therapy).

    As the administration plods on with its crappy agenda, more and more holes will start to appear; it’s just the law of averages – there is no way they can keep this train rolling. More people that felt convinced that Bush was right will get closer to the fence, and that’s when you can snatch them and bring them over to our side. I don’t mean grab them physically, but pull them over with your well thought out arguments and your patient persuasion.

    There will, however, always be people like my Republican dad. There is no way you’re going to change his mind on anything, no matter how much shock therapy or how many drugs you give him.

  • Gregor (unverified)

    Another observation, if you will. What I find is that there is a line we have created in this country because we have two viable parties and a whole lot of other interests. What is occurring, it seems to me, and it is being remarked in numerous op-eds, is that the Republicans are soldifying their position with definitions that are gettign more narrow each day. They are dismissing their own moderates.

    We often talk about the Center, and so I would imagine that center is where the line is. It sways back and forth over all of the tremendously unique individuals in this country and as it moves further across these masses one way or the other, there are more people finding the line crossing over their beliefs or understandings making what was formerly Right, Left. At least this is how it seems to be moving right now, and there are many, many people struggling to be more Right and stay IN, rather then be Left OUT.

    Dispossessed, I am taking sides. I think the Right is wrong. I think democracy is being dismantled under the guise of false patriotism and religious hazing. There are two tremendous forces being exploited by the Right, religion and patriotism, or more generally loyalty. I asked myself, if a religious person was to remove the fetus from consideration as to why they voted for Dubya, would they, [and I believe they would] then resort to patriotism and following the Leader. To do any different is disloyal and a betrayal.

    Well, I feel betrayed when the Leader lies to the world and most importantly lies to the American people. And I question the sincerity of someone who declares their virtue while spinning these fabrications. Between Dubya and the next guy, I vote the next guy. I am devoutly NOT BUSH, more then anything else. But I also understand there are other NOT BUSH people who came to that conclusion for their own reasons, some of which may be mine as well.

    Do we become fatalists, that this pendulum will swing back as it always does, or

  • Mitchell Santine Gould (unverified)

    This conversation about the quality of our cultural and political debates doesn't have to occur in the abstract space of sheer principles. It benefits from a reminder of the unpleasant facts of the real world.

    The real world?

    According to a new study by Harvard Medical School,

    the United States has the highest prevalence of mental disorders of any developed country in the world.

    At, another report adds

    More than one in four U.S. adults per year have some form of mental illness or substance abuse. Many of those cases are mild, but 14% of the population has moderate or severe mental illness, say Harvard Medical School's Ronald Kessler, PhD, and colleagues. Lifetime prevalence is even higher. About half of all Americans will meet the criteria for some type of mental disorder sometime in their lifetime, with first onset usually in childhood or adolescence, Kessler writes in June's Archives of General Psychiatry.
    And just within the week, we were also informed that

    "Religious devotion sets the United States apart from some of its closest allies. Americans profess unquestioning belief in God and are far more willing to mix faith and politics than people in other countries." This interesting bit of news came from an AP-Ipsos poll.

    "Only Mexicans come close to Americans in embracing faith, the poll found. But unlike Americans, Mexicans strongly object to clergy lobbying lawmakers, in line with the nation’s historical opposition to church influence."

    I am a spiritual person myself, but if you think I'm insinuating a correlation between national religiousity and national madness... well, you do the math.

    Let's just say that these are the conditions under which voices of reason are trying to conduct reasonable discussions.

    So. If you think you never hear the voice of reason in public, maybe it's because the voices of reason have been speaking all the time, but there's something damn queer about America that prevents the voice of reason from being heard.

  • (Show?)

    I'm always advocating for "the facts" and arguing that we need the flexiblility to change our positions with changing research results, including serious analysis of experimental sicial efforts etcetera, but sometimes you wind up in the lace Rob Corddry finds himself on The Daily Show:

    Corddry: How does one report the facts in an unbiased way when the facts themselves are biased?

    Stewart: I'm sorry, Rob, did you say the facts are biased?

    Corddry: That's right Jon. From the names of our fallen soldiers to the gradual withdrawal of our allies to the growing insurgency, it's become all too clear that facts in Iraq have an anti-Bush agenda.

    Just like in europe during feudal times, sometimes the court jester is left as the only one in the room that can speak truth to power.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    I really agree with the premise of this thread, that persuasion is dead. Well, like Bert Lowry says, not dead so much as having had a change of focus.

    We, the Democratic/Progressive/Liberal end of the political spectrum, have seemed to hold forth that if only people were given more education, more information, and brought along on how to link all the facts together – they would join us on the glorious left leaning path to nirvana.

    It hasn’t worked out that way. I recall years ago when attempting to persuade others about the measure to fence off streams, coming to a point where I had to tell people that I already understood their “facts”, and I came to a different conclusion. When you disagree with one of us (liberals, lefties – insert any word used by Rush Limbaugh), we tend to treat you as stupid.

    The problem is, and I see Terry noted this above in a glancing way by referencing the Art of War, that the TACTIC of persuasion has been used without STRATEGY. Persuasion is only one tool in a whole tool chest of possible tactics. Just think of what the Republicans use every day – they attack, smear, lie, cheat, steal (well Tom Delay anyway), misconstrue, misdirect, pull wool over eyes, play factions off against each other, and rake in vast sums of money – all goal or strategy driven to grab as much power as possible and hold it. Meanwhile on the left, the only people we seem attack are our own when we have minor disagreements. (Witness the current news about Howard Dean!)

    Strategy simply is the use of various tactics to achieve agreed to goals. As a Democrat, my goals are simple. I want to elect more Democrats so that we can hold the offices of policy and law in our land. I would hope that we could do a better job than the Republicans in serving the people of our land. So, one thing I use is attacks. My “ethical” form of attacks is to in a timely and direct manner expose the truth to those who are having the truth hidden from them. This is not persuasion - it is an attack. I recently wrote a letter to the editor critical of Rep. Greg Walden for engaging in a “nice” poetry contest, while not telling the people that elected him that he was part of ripping off $650 billion set aside for social security. Our County Party will soon be running another paid ad pointing out failings of Rep. Walden and others. We have in the past run a paid ad pointing out that State Sen. Whitsett has lied to those that elected him about his position on the minimum wage. We know that the Republicans are their weakest on economic issues, so we focus there first and strongest. We know we are weakest on social issues, so we don’t focus there.

    The greatest problem with persuasion is that it often plays to our weakest position. We argue most about what we disagree most about. Rather than focus on areas of agreement, we focus on areas of disagreement and lose votes.

    Persuasion as a tactic should be put on a shelf to cool off for awhile. We ought to use other tactics for awhile. We should be in a well thought out uproar about the missing $8.1 billion in Iraq. We should be all over the place yelling about the over $8 billion in tax credits for oil companies. We don’t need to persuade anyone, we need to make a big stink! Republican voters agree with us on these issues, and there is an opportunity to share that agreement.

    We should take to task every elected Republican in Oregon who supports cutting the minimum wage for students (who will be voters in 1 to 4 years), and comparing that with their support for cutting capital gains taxes for the wealthy.

    We need to be strategic in finding the issues that motivate select sub-populations of voters, and speak to their concerns pro-actively. I can tell you right now that one sub-population is parents of school age children who are very concerned about budget cuts. If there was ever an issue that ran our way, this is it. We should be patting every elected Oregon Democrat on the back publicly and loudly for supporting education, and pointing out representative district by representative district which Republicans are Minnis stooges to the people that elected them.

    I guess that is a new level of persuasion, the cutting edge of the sword, but it is really more appropriate for our strategy than having amiable conversations about public policy.

    My rule of thumb is that I believe that Democrats, etc. on the left are probably in 90% agreement on issues, and we really don’t need to worry too much about the rest. What we need to do is put aside talk and substitute action. If we aren’t talking among ourselves about action plans, what we can do this month, how can we attack Republicans and support Democrats; then we aren’t talking about the right stuff. Our discussions should be including, where is the Republican weakest in his/her district? What can we do to get at this weakness and exploit it? Who are our allies? What can we do today to further our cause?

    Frankly, one of the best actions going on this year is the Rural Organizing Project's march from Salem to Portland that will launch in a couple of days. It is militant, it will be loud, it will have press, and the issues to be voiced have traction in Oregon. Wish I could go, but alas…

  • LT (unverified)

    I agree with Steve's statement " I want to elect more Democrats so that we can hold the offices of policy and law in our land. "

    The question is how best to accomplish that. If a candidate's position has been changed now in office, by all means point that out.

    But I suspect as many votes (at least where I live) are changed by one on one or small group discussions among friends as are changed by the strategy and tactics of organized groups and campaign staffers.

    And by all means don't let campaign organization get in the way of winning votes. The goal is to get more votes than the opposition does inside your district. If it makes sense in your district to do something a particular way, don't let someone from another part of the state who doesn't live in your district tell you that what you are doing is all wrong.

    And having friends across the political spectrum, my guess is that understanding how others see something is valuable. It is a form of persuasion to listen to and honestly debate those who don't entirely agree with you. I consider that a very useful form of persuasion.

  • Brian Wagner (unverified)

    I've only skimmed the thread, but let me first laud Matt Miller to everyone. If you like the idea of persuasion, and hope that compromise and discussion are still possible conduits to consensus between opponents, read his book The Two Percent Solution. It's idealistic, but unlike much of the current literature, it shoots to raise questions about how our government runs and how it can be run better, in order to help the greatest number of people in the most efficient way. I've interviewed Matt before, and one of his strengths as a columnist is the accessibility of his prose--he is a thinker who rights columns, not a professional columnist.

    My other two cents: considering issues of the day from an intellectual standpoint can at times be refreshing when you tire of the partisan shouts of "Bolton good" and "Bolton bad." I think it is always healthy to immerse oneselves in the groundings of thought. To that end, I recommend the book "How the Scots invented the modern world," which traces Enlightenment thought in Scotland--it is truly fascinating to see how the ideas we discuss today, on issues as diverse as economic development and the natural rights of man, were developed, and done so by men who were eminently practical while at the same time feeling right at home professing lofty sentiments.

  • Ed Bickford (unverified)

    An engaging discussion, but I wonder if many will wade in this far.

    I sympathize with Mr. Miller's agonizing over the difficulty in persuading political adversaries of erroneous apprehension of the salient facts that they use to justify their opinions. However, he never quite pins down the source of his angst: the art of public relations has trumped the interplay of debate of fact and critical analysis.

    Public Relations (PR) was developed and refined over the course of the twentieth century to accomplish by conscious manipulation of mass media to achieve what he identifies as his own goal: "governing successfully requires influencing how people actually think". Yet if he really believes that honest persuasion is the true calling of the columnist, would he not be concerned with 'what people actually think'?

    The cynicism that underlies the manipulative approach of PR is that people should be told how to interpret information. If citizens are respected enough to participate in democracy, they'll be allowed to have unmanipulated access to information and to come to their own conclusions. I know that is an unrealistic ideal, but it is the pursuit of the ideal that inspires us and keeps us going.

  • Brian Wagner (unverified)

    Ed- I have to object to your singling out of public relations as a culprit. I work in PR, I've worked in media, and I've worked in politics. They all operate together to provide information, shape the flow of information, and modify the impact of information. It is a reality that is, in my mind, not negatively manipulative. PR as an industry is just the clearest realization of a pursuit that professionals and activists in all sorts of fields are undertaking; to get their message across. To argue that we should not tell people how to interpret information is to assume that there are clear truths or that, if people were allowed to "think freely," the world would suddenly become a better place.

    As I've learned from talking to reporters, there is too much information out there for them to have unmanipulated access to all pertinent info when doing research; they rely on PR and political types to bring items to their attention that they can choose to use or not use. The old adage is that by reporting anything, the media is helping to create the news because the only thing separating "news" from not-news is whether it was reported. There are political parties, PR professionals, and a media for a reason--to present facts and arguments that distill the essence of larger ideas, so that not everyone is having to do the same amount of research regardless of their job, interest, and role in life. If PR was a monolith supporting a single side, then I would be worried, but just as I think children adapt to the realities of violent video games by changing their standards, rather than by becoming violent criminals, so do I think that people adapt to the message-shaping of PR specialists.

  • Ed Bickford (unverified)

    Brian has failed to demonstrate to me that PR is not rife with cynicism, not believing that free thinking would make our world better. Comparing his profession to video game programmers that encourage children to indulge in violent fantasies does not make me respect them any better either.

  • (Show?)

    Persuasion is not dead. Not hardly. Rather, the object of persuasion has narrowed. Parties and politicians no longer try to persuade people to their ideas at all (though we should not exaggerate how much they used to do so). Rather, they take polls, find out what people currently think or like, and then try to persuade people that they fit the bill, or persuade them that the other side doesn't. It is still persuasion, just ad hominem persuasion based on labels. Don't engage ideas, just stick a label on someone and attack the label.

    Lani Guinier was a classic example. Kerry's ridiculous claim, backing up the Bush lie machine, that "everybody knew/believed" Saddam Hussein had WsofMD is another. What really happened was that believing was a required condition for being admitted to the debate, treated as serious. Disagree? You're nobody. Systematic critics of U.S. policies were excluded a priori. Some in the best position to know, like former weapons inspectors, were ignored, underreported, buried, as were stories by skeptical journalists. Personally I blame editorial cowardice.

    That persuasion about the content of ideas is in a bad state is hardly surprising, when the people who spend the most time actually thinking about ideas, and engaging in persuasive argument about them, are systematically vilified in our anti-intellectual culture. I'm talking about college and university teachers and researchers. On this, the mainstream center-left (a.k.a. Democrats) are often nearly as bad as the right and the press. Hear no ideas out of the mainstream, see no ideas outside of the mainstream, speak no ideas out of the mainstream.

    This is not new -- Socrates was killed for being too persuasive against community religious values and for teaching allegedly bad forms of persuasion said to corrupt the youth. He was the original PC indoctrinator. Persuasion is always threatening. We should not invent a myth of some golden past in this respect.

  • Gregor (unverified)

    Pat Ryan found the best arguments, if we are to persuade anyone. The truth is not an incident, it is the irrefutable facts as expressed by Corrdry on The Daily Show. It was made perfectly clear to everyone how absurd the Bush PR program really is. The death toll, the vanishing allies and growing insurgency. How does one refer to these as all Anti-Bush?

    When speaking this truth, it is easy to tell who you can reach. The ones who are laughing already get it. The ones who are angry never will and at least some of the ones who are silent can be reached, unless they are on a slow burn about all the Bush-whackers embarrassing their candidate. One thing is sure, though, thanks to the Reich's PR. The one's who believe there were Iraqis on the planes in 9/11. The ones who believe Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. They'll never get it. They won't even hear you.

  • Brian Wagner (unverified)

    Ed- the problem with either of us coming to agreement is symbolized by your comment about video game programmers. I disagree with what you say about them, you disagree with me. The facts tell us little; facts can be used and twisted--everyone does that, not just PR folks, political activists, or the media. I think Chris hit it on the head when he called for recognition of the fact that there was no golden age in human history; we always spin, because of self-interest. So while I may not have convinced you about PR ( in part, because I think we have fundamental differences of opinion we are basing our arguments on), you haven't convinced me of any reason why PR stands out from the crowd for doing what everyone else does. Damn us all, don't damn the PR professionals who make an easy target. And for the record, if I was arguing on your points, I would say politicians are even worse than PR types (of course, everyone DOES PR in their own way). Most PR is about selling products and people through the spread of ideas and coverage; decisions like war, that are by far the greatest victims of spin, are publicized and spun by the politicians we elect.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    I will oversimplify somewhat: It's the fault of the corporate media.

    Most people, really all people, do not have the time, and sometimes the research skills, to confirm the facts and figures used in political arguments. Neither do they have the wide-ranging knowledge to notice when political arguments are inconsistent or logically flawed.

    This is the job of the news media; not to make up our minds, but to give us the information necessary to make good judgements. The corporate media have abdicated this responsibility, because it would often lead them in directions counter to the interests of their own corporations and their client corporations, and also because runaway brides and murder trials are better for ratings [at least in the short term]. There are other reasons as well: challenging authority tends to reduce reporters' access, for one. Also, corporate owners have shrunk traditionally unprofitable news divisions.

    In the absence of an effective Fourth Estate, it is inevitable that public discourse will degrade. Lies and distortions are more powerful than the truth when one can get away with them because they can be tailored to one's needs. Facts and reason must be taken as they are.

  • Brian Wagner (unverified)

    Have we ever really had an effective Fourth Estate, though? And isn't the strength of the media today (as well as a weakness), is that there are a massive number of sources all checking on each other? For example, would the Gulf of Tonkin remained believable for more than a few days if it happened tomorrow?

  • Becky (unverified)

    I don't think persuasion is dead. I think it's more a problem of people becoming increasingly jaded and distrustful of everyone and everything they hear. Rather than try to sort through what they hear and read to separate the facts from the lies, it's a lot easier to just cling to your original belief system. I hear evidence of this all the time in political discussions - nobody believes the sources of information coming from the other side. We've all "wised up" after decades of bombardment by exaggerated advertising claims and slick marketers. Older people are still naive about these things, and I would wager they also are more likely to discuss political ideas openly and be persuaded.

  • Gregor (unverified)

    An effective 4th estate? Well, did the Washington Post open any eyes with their discussions with Deep Throat? But I would propose Watergate wouldn't make news the 3rd day if something of that nature was reported today. Compared to the slick sales job we all heard before Shock & Awe, Watergate was shoplifting. We now have a criminal in office on a much grander scale.

  • Brian Wagner (unverified)

    yes, but Watergate was two men looking to make a name, with nothing to lose, while the establishment, even then, urged caution. i mean, look at Woodward, he is one of the most self-promoting journalists alive.

  • Ed Bickford (unverified)

    I trust that I won't be perceived as indulging in personal attacks, intending as I do to deconstruct Brian's self-admittedly twisted arguments, in as much as it exemplifies the sort of discourse that makes Mr. Miller despair of persuasion via honest debate.

    There is a name for those whose ethic is that facts tell us little, and that twisting them to your own ends is justified because everyone does it: LIAR. If that is true, then in as much as I lied about being unable to make it to work because my wife needed to spend that day with me, it is okay for a president to lie about the reason for starting a war. It's just savvy PR.

    Brian sought to excuse the effect of message-shaping in PR as analogous to violent video games affecting children by inducing them to "change their standards" (which I read as becoming desensitized and apathetic) versus becoming violent criminals. When I noted that inspired no respect, he brushed it off as a disagreement over facts. The fact is that his own analogy is a telling indictment of the profession that has shaped his argument.

    In his article, Mr. Miller states "Alienation is the only intelligent response to a political culture that insults our intelligence." That alienation is a cultivated response sought by the political culture which brooks no interference from an educated, critical constituency. They employ PR to convince them to tune out, become desensitized and apathetic.

    I bow to Tom's simple judgement: "It's the fault of the corporate media." Like Brian I find worrisome the idea of PR being "a monolith supporting a single side." I feel that the wealthy class who are supported by their corporations employ PR via mass media on an unmatched scale to accomplish an ever-increasing concentration of power in their own hands.

  • Brian Wagner (unverified)

    I didn't realize I had admitted to being twisted, but hell, all is fair game on Blue Oregon. Ed, facts alone DO tell us little. Your idea of a fact seems to be that violent video games are bad for children. My fact is that almost all indicators of juvenile misbehavior (sex, drugs, violence) show that children are behaving better and holding higher standards than previous decades. I in no way was saying that we could be happy with desensitized and apathetic children; you did a little PR (as you describe it) and twisted my words. What I was saying was that we don't give people, even children, enough credit for being able to separate reality and fiction. According to people who trumpet the "fact" of violence in the media, we should be a society of warmongers by now.

    Example of fact: anti-abortion advocates argue that abortion and assisted suicide create a culture of death (this coming from Pope JPII among others), they have their examples, often based on actuall cases. Yet, John Reed Prize winner Steven Levitt made his name by arguing persuasively that the numbers show that abortion has led to a major drop in crime. Which type of fact do you believe? Anecdotal, with true stories to back it up? Or a societal canvass that paints a broader picture?

    Invading Iraq will lead to greater stability in the ME. Liberals say we are failing in Iraq. Conservatives say, look at Syria and Palestine, there are positive effects. Both, in their own way, are facts that are attributable.

    My thought process is not shaped by modern PR, as you so claim (believe me, PR professionals are of a whole array of personal thought processes--of my two bosses at the place I interned in NYC, one's background was as the manager of the Beatles, the other from the Clinton White House) but by intellectual beliefs passed down by the Scottish Enlightenment. I believe in the ability of man to be good, but I also give credence to the claims of Lord Kames and Adam Smith that self-interest pushes each man forward. I disagree with your assumption that the facts can stand alone. Sometimes, I do believe that is true. But I have seen many cases before where the facts I have found on one side of a story seemed convincing until further research found equally convincing facts for the other side. Facts themselves are created by people, and are just as fallable.

    There is no "PR culture"--PR is everywhere. Media is a form of PR, politics is PR, social advocacy is PR, EVERYTHING involves PR. It is just that today, our society has created a strong market for service-based industries and there is enough money around for people to pay others to do PR that was formerly just done by everyone. PR is a tool that has always existed, it is just now, that it has a face, that you find it easy to attack as a scapegoat.

  • Brian Wagner (unverified)

    On second thought, I apologize for bringing up the Scottish Enlightenment. This just illustrates the dangers of reading and surfing the internet at the same time. You tend to channel the book you have on your lap.

  • Tom Cox (unverified)

    Persuasion is as dead as you let it be. Considering how effectively the Left has suppressed dissent, the Left has lost its ability to persuade, and increasingly tries to rely on thuggery and intimidation in place of reasoned dialog or an appeal to shared values.

    But it's not all darkness.

    I've been very happy with how the City Club of Portland has been embracing speakers and topics outside the core true-believer orbit. They had Don McIntire in to talk about a statewide spending cap (ably countered by OCPP's Chuck Sheketoff). There's an upcoming talk that will include a spokesman for Oregon's Evangelical Christians.

    The Left's long standing reliance on PC thought control has to be abandoned if it's to re-engage in the marketplace of ideas. (They might start by not ostracizing black Democrats who favor school vouchers, for example.)

  • Tom Cox (unverified)

    I made some assertions above that I want to substantiate - my claim that the Left has largely abandoned attempts to persuade is supported (I think) by this article:


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    Tom... Certainly, it's also true that the Right has no interest in intellectual discourse. Outside of the Libertarians, the whole conservative project is about finding true believers that parrot the GOP party line (see: Legislature, Oregon - particularly the section on Minnis, Karen.)

  • Ed Bickford (unverified)

    Brian's every paragraph is evidence of his twisted uses for fact and fiction. It's tiresome. He's the one that averred that "we always spin, because of self-interest." That is true only for those who have no unselfish interests.

    His analogy that "children adapt to the realities of violent video games by changing their standards" is NOT the point of the discussion. His contention that my reaction to it is my idea of the salient fact is an attempt to deflect the discussion.

    The point is that PR, as developed over the last century, has made a science of creating a believable frame for a fictional account of the facts. His defense of the systematic use of PR in pursuit of one's goals is that it is justified because people can tell the difference between fact and fiction. Well, yeah, unless you overwhelm their 'BS detectors' with PR!

    When one is consistently overwhelmed by obviously fictionalized reporting, he becomes desensitized and apathetic. It is the desired effect of systemic PR. Brian shouldn't claim to be ignorant of that if he wishes to maintain that he is a professional. Or maybe that is his proffered credential?

  • LT (unverified)

    Kari is right, and also I wonder whether there are more than 10% "true believers" on any side of politics.

    Who exactly is "the Left"? Is it Tom Hayden and others like him? Is it the Pacific Green Party? Where does "the left" stand on debates between public and private sector unions? Or between the "money is all that matters" crowd vs. those who believe in grass roots politics?

    Does "the Left" choose officers, have meetings and decide how to vote as a bloc? If so, where in the election returns of the evidence of that? Or is it just a phrase from the 20th century which doesn't relate to 2005--for instance, in the recent Supreme Court medical marijuana case was "the Left" represented by Justice Stevens's written opinion or that of Justice O'Connor? How many know enough about the details of those written opinions to answer that question?

    And for those who studied that decision, it was not always clear cut. No one I know would call George Will a man of "the left". Read here what he had to say about that decision.

    Could it be "the left" is convenient shorthand assuming we still live in the Industrial Age? Could it be intellectual laziness to avoid discussing the specifics of a situation? Are some activists unable to grasp how many people just try to live their lives without having to choose an ideology to make their decisions for them?

    Or perhaps some activists have a desire to identify how total strangers think, as if individuals are not allowed to think for themselves?

    If someone believes a balanced budget is more important than tax cuts (or for that matter, that funding veterans hospitals is more important than tax cuts for the richest Americans) is that person a member of "the left"?

    Why do some have such an allergy to being specific?

    Given the above mention of McIntire, is everyone who wants decent school funding (as Hatfield seemed to say at the ceremony for him in the capitol) a member of "the left"?
    Is everyone who considers McIntire a windbag who needs to "get a life" a member of "the left"?

    Or could it just be that in the 21st century, in the Information Age, few people allow groups to do their thinking for them? Given all the sources of information available, why do people need an ideology or a group telling them what to think? How does one classify those who speak from the heart whether or not you agree with them?

    How should one describe the folks who are willing to discuss details vs. the folks who say things like "The voters have spoken on this measure but not that one" (Measure 30 vs. min. wage, Measure 36 vs. bears & cougars, etc)? How does one classify registered independents, and/ or those who vote split ticket (Kerry voters for Measure 36, voting for both Bush and Hooley, etc.)?

    What about those who bemoan the lack of leadership and vision too often replaced by snide remarks but no detailed proposals?

    Think about this from the point of view of the college student, the newlywed couple, the family reunion for Mother's Day, the folks at the county fair, the concert, the bowling alley. Would the people you encountered there even think it a worthwhile use of their time to define "the left"? Would those who did answer such a question say things like "Communism is dead, and there is no Left left"?

    I value and vote for people who are civil, mature individuals who propose solutions. I admire Sens. Westlund and Morse for their advocacy of the civil unions bill and for their candid remarks about it. I think we could use more intelligent debate and less stereotyping. Does that make me a member of "the left" or just an independent thinker?

  • Miles (unverified)

    Persuasion dies in times of war, and we are in the midst of two wars, a foreign war in Iraq (and Afghanistan) and a class war in America. The latter is the more serious war, more serious for its consequences, more serious because it's the one the right really cares about... and the one the left should care about if it could only stir itself from its stupor.

    Persuasion and Miller style rummy good debate over a beer is all fine when the consequences are small and it doesn't much matter whether tweedle dum or tweedle dee wins the next election.

    But mysteriously, there are historical moments where consequences and implications grow larger, where lives and futures are at stake, and where political philosophical choices become clearer to more people.

    We are in such a moment, a moment of war, not a moment of peace. And in a time of war the importance of winning exceeds the importance of persuading, and persuasion becomes a mere tool in the service of the real goal: victory.

    I think I know which side elevated the stakes, reached for more complete change, sought to create a revolution... but blaming the right isn't the point. The issue is not WHO has led us into an era of war, but the way in which the war society, the war system, the war culture, then structures the relative possibilities for persuasion and civil debate versus propaganda and win-at-all-costs thinking.

    It doesn't matter that we might wish to return to an era of persuasion. We live in an era of war... most obviously being waged by the right... but hopefully no less responded to by the left.

    Where this war will lead us is anybody's guess.

  • Tom Cox (unverified)

    Miles, if you're saying that war is "persuasion by other means" I'll have to disagree. Persuasion is a vital part of any "war" effort, as well as any attempt to change society for the better (or worse).

    I'm looking forward to the City Club of Portland's upcoming study on partisanship in politics - it's this very topic.

    No, persuasion isn't dead. It's the only real tool available to anybody who wants to win a long term struggle, so it'll never go out of style.

    A civil style of political discourse is hard to maintain when the stakes are high. There is a maxim - "he who demagogues the issue, wins" - that pushes those focused on winning towards demagoguery. But that's only useful tactically. Strategically it can be a loser.

    Mothers Against Drunk Driving helped change the entire societal attitude towards drunks and driving. Theirs was a cause of moral persuasion. We could all learn from them.

  • Gregor (unverified)

    There is an insidious current of intimidation growing out of the Republicans at this time. When Voinovich made his tearful plea for careful consideration to be made before this country makes Bolton our UN Representative, I believe those were tears of frustration. He knew in his heart that the Zom-Bushes were not blinking in their support of Bolton. They were not hearing the arguments being made against his nomination. Their loyalty surpassed any question of whether Bolton was the wisest choice for the post. The only consideration made was that he is the President's choice, their President's choice for the post and they would support him without hesitation. They were in a sprint to get the nomination completed. Voinivich cried because he felt persuasion was dead and his position was at stake for having the audacity to question the choice.

    During the debates it was revealed that the phone across the aisle, between the parties had been silent for several YEARS. Granted the phone works both ways, but I believe that the silence is a reflection that at that level of government, persuasion has ceased to be practiced, discussion are no longer the means of coming to a decision. I guess the only example of persuasion one might find evident is that regardless of the facts, Dubya persuaded Congress to support the declaration of war, so perhps in that sense it is not dead.

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    But I have seen many cases before where the facts I have found on one side of a story seemed convincing until further research found equally convincing facts for the other side. Facts themselves are created by people, and are just as fallable.

    Great debate here folks and I'm really gratified to see Tom Cox in the mix. While Brian and Ed both make some useful points, I'd like to srongly disgree with Brian on the above excerpt.

    Facts are not created by people. facts are deduced by preset and rigid standards of proof. People assign relative importance to a group of facts and or/suppositions to arrive at "truth" or standards of "best practices."

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    We have never had a well-functioning Fourth Estate. Freedom of the press has always belonged to those who could afford one. That said, today's news media are much worse than what we had in the last half of the 20th century.


    • ownership consolidation
    • corporate control leading to supremacy of the profit motive and aversion to corporate unfriendly reporting
    • the end of the Fairness Doctrine
    • the rightwing thinktank juggernaut
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