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Persuasion Versus Conversion

I want to jump off from something Rod Dreher said about how movement conservatism confuses politics with religion. Dreher says:

I’m always fascinated by the question of how we know what we know, and was thinking this morning about what kind of mind sees what just happened as either a victory, or a defeat that happened not because the cause was hopeless, but because the cause was betrayed, its noble defenders stabbed in the back by faithless RINO traitors. Because that is the emerging narrative within the right-wing bubble.

Can the Tea Partiers’ beliefs be falsified? I don’t think they can be. I mean, is there any evidence that could convince them that the fault here lies with themselves, in the way they conceive politics, and in the way they behaved? It sure doesn’t look like it. In that sense, they think of politics as a kind of religion. . . .

There has long been a sense on the Right that the movement must be vigilant against the backsliders and compromisers, who will Betray True Conservatism if you give them the chance. Again, the religious mindset: politics as a purity test. In this worldview, a politician who compromises sells out the True Faith — and faith, by definition, does not depend on empirical observation to justify itself.

I think this is quite correct, and I want to agree with Dreher that the point isn’t that there’s a problem with bringing a religious sensibility or religious convictions into the public square and into politics; the problem is conceiving politics in religious terms.

I want to make an additional practical point in this regard. The narrative of acquiring religious convictions is one of conversion. Whether it happens at a stroke on the way to Damascus or through some more gradual process, we’re talking about a fundamental change from one state, and one group affiliation, to another. That process produces strong incentives to retain the new affiliation once it’s adopted. But it also raises high barriers to entry (at least if one cares about the conversion being sincere). The sorts of people who try on Buddhism one week and Kabbalah the next are not the sorts of people who any religious group is really trying to get in the pews.

The incentives in politics, meanwhile, cut largely the other way. The median voter theorem dictates that, in a well-functioning two-party democracy, both parties will tend to earn 50% of the votes. They will constantly be competing for the most fickle portion of the electorate – because that’s where victory lies. Barriers to entry need to be as low as possible. And the goal isn’t to convert people, but to persuade them – to vote for you and your compatriots. Obviously, political parties want more rather than less loyal supporters. But loyalty is necessarily secondary to actually cobbling together a majority, because without a majority you lose.

In order to persuade someone, you have to be willing to entertain the possibility that there are multiple ways of looking at something, that there are arguments on both sides (albeit presumably better ones on your own), and that it is right and proper for someone to expect to be persuaded of the rightness of your position rather than merely be told what it is. That the truth is not self-evident, but contested, continuously. If entertaining that possibility is threatening to your faith, you won’t do it. If you don’t do it, you won’t be very persuasive to people who don’t already believe. Of course, you make make some converts of people who are looking for a new faith. But those who don’t convert will remain unpersuaded.

A political party that tried to build itself like a church could only succeed if it had monopoly control of the state – if, in other words, it was the ruling party of a totalitarian system. Under a situation of free competition, those principles of organization will inevitably lead to perpetual minority status. By the same token, as I’m sure Dreher would agree, a church that focused overwhelmingly on marketing, and on the most-fickle, least-committed “persuadables,” would be headed for disaster.

(As an aside, not all persuasion is rational. Most marketing, a strategy of persuasion, operated on an emotional, appetitive level rather than at the level of reasoned argumentation. But an ad that persuades you to buy Coca Cola by suggesting you will be cooler and get more dates if you do is not trying to make you into a Coca Cola-ite who will never even try Pepsi because he’s convinced it tastes like sewage. By the same token, not all conversion narratives are based on experiences that are not accessible to reason. I know people who have argued themselves into the conviction that they must believe. But what they are thereby convinced of is much deeper and more powerful than simply a preference. That’s my point.)

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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