The Dying Art of Political Persuasion

tags: Rhetoric, Political rhetoric, persuasion

David Bromwich is a professor of English at Yale University. He is the author of Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking (Yale University Press, 1992).

Nothing is harder to prove than that you can ever persuade anyone of anything. Prejudice or predisposition keeps a tenacious hold on our opinions. Yet education and a common culture (as distinct from religion) depend on the assumption that people can be persuaded. Why take a friend to a new play by an author I have read but my friend has never heard of? Because I know the friend well enough to think it worth a try.

In America, for a long time, it seemed to be like that with politics, too. People were assumed to be occasionally amenable to a change of mind, whether by argument or imaginative appeal. The naturalness of this trust, however, seems in retrospect to have been a historical accident. The last five presidential elections have been a contest for the favor of a tiny percentage of the electorate. And this is a symptom of a larger shift from argument to other kinds of stimuli that do the work faster. Persuasion has come to seem an intricate and rare undertaking.

Recently, I edited a selection of political essays in English, from the early 18th century to the mid-20th. In deciding which pieces to include, I found myself asking, What does it take to convince a reader? As the table of contents filled out, with a front line of writers that came to include Thomas Paine, William Hazlitt, W.E.B. Du Bois, George Orwell, and Hannah Arendt, I realized that there was one intellectual trait that marked the writings I valued most. In every case, the author was clearly not preaching to the converted — yet the solid finality of their convictions was never in question. It is a strange capacity, when you think about it, this readiness to be seen testing the soundness of your view — and stranger still, to do it with a clarity and energy that attract the uninitiated.

Careless journalists preach to the choir from the choir, and their reward is to be liked by the choir. In a higher realm of opinion-making — loftier for its prestige and rewards, not necessarily for the talent involved — the columnist is speaking a word to the wise, in the hope of being heard by the powerful. But the writer who really aims to convince anyone has first asked, with regard to a larger audience: “Whom do I want to be still speaking to after this effort has ended?”

A memorable essay that came from asking that question was Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 letter to James C. Conkling. Lincoln wrote this public letter to a political ally in order, through him, to reprove a body of citizens who wanted an early end to the Civil War. They were also notably hostile to the Emancipation Proclamation and the consequent recruiting of Black soldiers to fight on the Union side. Lincoln’s task was to show that these people were politically obtuse and morally bankrupt, but to do it so quietly that they would not know what hit them. To accomplish that, he was willing to deprive himself of a smashing debater’s success. He may have been writing most of all to be overheard by voters in the next election.

Lincoln’s ostensible audience, however, was composed of Northern critics of the Union cause who described themselves as “unconditional peace” men. He takes their announced political identity at face value:

You desire peace; and you blame me that we do not have it. But how can we attain it? There are but three conceivable ways. First, to suppress the rebellion by force of arms. This, I am trying to do. Are you for it? If you are, so far we are agreed.


The second and third ways turn out to be surrender or compromise. Lincoln rejects surrender on patriotic grounds his opponents can hardly dispute. And compromise, he says, has been tried and proved futile. Accordingly, he follows the track of the plea for “peace” a step further in:

But to be plain, you are dissatisfied with me about the negro. Quite likely there is a difference of opinion between you and myself upon that subject. I certainly wish that all men could be free, while I suppose you do not.


This might seem to end the argument decisively. But having marked the moral difference between his view and his opponents’, Lincoln declines to break off with moralistic denunciation.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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