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Persuaders and Exhorters

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I think we do a little bit of both on my show. Thoughtful piece from Peter Wehner.


In the current (Fall 2011) issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Ross Douthat reviews Irving Kristol’s The Neoconservative Persuasion: Selected Essays, 1942-2009. In it Ross writes this:

The art of persuasion rarely succeeds without a leap of imaginative sympathy. Identification tends to precede assent: to embrace any worldview, any philosophical position, one must first imagine oneself as the kind of person who could become a Christian or an atheist, a Marxist or a libertarian.

Thus autobiography is often the most compelling form of argument, and few polemics are quite so potent as a well-told conversion story. Whereas lesser writers merely hector the unconverted, the intellectual convert identifies with them, and inspires identification in return. As you are, I once was, he reminds the reader – a reassurance that makes it infinitely easier to proceed with the argument that As I am, you should become.

No writer understood this better than the late Irving Kristol. He was a serial convert. “I have been a neo-Marxist, a neo-Trotskyist, a neo-socialist, a neoliberal, and finally a neo-conservative,” he wrote…

Ross’s point, elegantly made, is an important one. The ability to convert others does rest, at least in part, on the ability to identify with others. It creates a degree of trust between individuals and reduces the chances of hostility. If people feel as though you can sympathize with their point of view, they’re much more likely to be open to your line of argument.

I’d simply add that persuasion, as crucial as it is, isn’t the only mode of discourse that’s needed. It’s also essential for a political movement to be composed of individuals who “preach to the choir” and inspire the faithful. The effect of their discourse isn’t persuasion as much as it’s hortatory, meant to exhort rather than to convince.

Most of those who inhabit the world of politics and political ideas tend to be partial to one form more than the other – and they view those who are in the other camp with suspicion. The exhorters often view the persuaders as unprincipled, spineless, and too cowardly to speak hard truths that may offend the “establishment” and the “ruling class.” The persuaders, on the other hand, tend to view the exhorters as simple-minded, partisan, and dogmatic.

There can be elements of truth to both critiques. Some of the persuaders do pull their punches in order not to offend, and some of the exhorters are cheerleaders to the point of being intellectually rigid and unyielding even to evidence.

But the reverse is also true. There are people of intelligence, good will, and integrity who play different roles based on their temperament, disposition, and station in life. A conservative New York Times columnist has one audience; a conservative radio talk show host has another. Both can do their jobs well and even honorably – and in an ideal world, those in each camp would respect the role and skills of the other.

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