To Have a Democracy, We Must Learn How to Persuade Each Other

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If you have any reverence for Persuasion
the majesty of Persuasion,
the spell of my voice that would appease your fury —
Oh please stay.
— Athena in Aeschulys’s The Eumenides

When the Goddess Athena speaks of the “majesty of persuasion,” she is trying to accomplish two different things. First, she is trying to resolve a difficult situation involving the last member of a royal, and royally screwed-up, family. Also, she is trying to create the world’s first democracy in Athens. And to do either of these things, she has to convince the vengeance-driven Furies to abandon their case against Orestes and become part of her city instead.

It all started when his father, Agamemnon, sacrificed his sister, Iphigenia, in order for the Greeks to have favorable winds in their epic journey to Troy. Fast forward ten years: when Agamemnon comes home after defeating the Trojans, his wife, Clytemnestra, kills him in his moment of triumph. Their son Orestes, then, has to choose between leaving his father’s murder unrevenged or killing his father’s killer, who happened to be his mother. When he kills his mother (as he must according to the rules of his society) the Furies torment him without mercy (as they are entitled to do with matricides). Orestes claims sanctuary with Athena at the exact moment that she is trying to create her famous city with a new kind of government.

What Aeschylus wants us to understand is that democracy is the answer to the social problem that Orestes represents. A society that relies on private vengeance to enforce its laws invariably experiences a sort of reciprocal retaliation that eventually engulfs the entire community. When laws are created and enforced by the demos, or the people, then justice can be administered without the threat of personal retaliation. When she convinces the Furies to abandon her revenge, she is both advocating for democracy and modeling the kind of persuasive discourse that makes democracy possible.

Democracy requires persuasion. There is no way around this. If we can’t persuade each other of things — and descend into permanent factions whose only electoral strategy is to get more of its people to the polls — democracy will stop working. One faction will become a permanent majority, and the other faction(s) will stop playing the game. This is when the barricades go up and the civil war becomes inevitable. James Madison foresaw all of this in Federalist #10, but who reads stuff like that anymore unless it is to mine quotes for our side?

Persuasion itself has been having a hard time in our Republic. We have a to of things that look like arguments going on all over the place — in person or online — but very few of them have persuasion as their goal. Rather, they constitute a public performance of outrage by which people try to raise their status within the community of other people who think exactly as they do. Real arguments must focus on actual persuasion, which almost never comes as a result of calling someone crazy, stupid, or evil.

Not everybody even believes in the possibility of political persuasion. Many people see political positions as expressions of innate personality traits — hard-wired into us either by our genes or by an irreversible process of socialization. Why should we waste time trying to be persuasive when people never really change their minds? This is a reasonable concern.

The idea that persuasion doesn’t work comes from a bad application of good science. A substantial body of research suggests that our political beliefs are shaped by more or less fixed psychological characteristics. Jonathan Haidt outlines much of this research in his best-selling 2013 book The Righteous Mind. According to Haidt, liberals and conservatives have different built-in matrices for moral reasoning. Both liberals and conservatives use values such as caring, liberty, and fairness in their matrices, but the conservative matrix also includes loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity. These different foundations for making value judgments shape the way we see the world, leading to different positions on most controversial issues.

Research like this, however, tells us about the difficulty of conversion, not persuasion. These are not the same things. We too often misrepresent the task of political persuasion by thinking of the most strident partisan we have ever encountered and imagining what it would take to turn that person into an equally strident partisan for the other side. This sort of Paul-on-the-Road-to-Damascus conversion rarely happens in politics. Most people don’t change their fundamental values, and if we expect them to, we are going to be very disappointed.

But we usually don’t need people to change their fundamental values in order to convince them to adopt a particular position. The fact that people have fundamental values makes it possible to persuade them by appealing to those values. But we have to find values that we really share. No meaningful argument can occur between people who don’t share at least some core assumptions about how the world should work — since “meaningful argument” largely entails convincing people that certain actions and beliefs are consistent with those core assumptions.

Thus we can frame the task of political persuasion as involving the attempt to convince people to update their current beliefs with new information. Research shows that we do this all the time. When people encounter new evidence and new arguments that contradict their positions, they almost always change their views in ways that are consistent, predictable, and measurable. They just don’t change them very much. But, as it turns out, we don’t really need them to.

For his dissertation at Columbia University, Yale political scientist Alexander Coppock conducted a series of experiments designed to measure incremental changes in political opinion when people are presented with new information about a topic. In one study, he used a seven-point scale to determine subjects’ support for capital punishment (1 = strongly against / 7 = strongly for) and for the proposition that capital punishment deters crime (1 = certain that it does not deter crime / 7 = certain that it does). Subjects who identified as either strongly for or strongly against capital punishment were invited to continue the study and asked to read two of six articles about the deterrent effect of capital punishment. Two articles supported the argument that capital punishment deters crime, two articles opposed it, and two articles were inconclusive, and equal numbers of participants received each of the six possible combinations.

Coppock then gave subjects a post-test to see where they fell on the same two seven-point scales. His most interesting finding was that, among those who read two articles with the same conclusion, both opponents and proponents of capital punishment moved one full point on a seven-point scale in the direction of the evidence. This doesn’t mean that death penalty supporters were suddenly willing to put on arm bands and light candles. But it does mean that people at every level of belief intensity changed — slightly but perceptibly — in the direction of evidence designed to persuade them. Though nobody in the study was converted, everybody was, to some extent, persuaded.

Small acts of persuasion matter, because there is much less distance between people’s beliefs than we often suppose. We easily confuse the distance between people’s political positions with the intensity of their convictions about them. It is entirely possible for people to become sharply divided, and even hostile, over relatively minor disagreements. Americans have fought epic political battles over things like baking wedding cakes and kneeling during the national anthem. And we once fought a shooting war over a whiskey tax of ten cents per gallon. The ferocity of these battles has nothing to do with the actual distance between different positions, which, when compared to the entire range of opinions possible in the world, comes fairly close to negligible.

None of this means that we can persuade our opponents easily. Persuading people to change their minds is excruciatingly difficult. It doesn’t always work, and it rarely works the way we think it will. But it does work, and the fact that it works makes it possible for us to have a democracy.

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