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Propaganda as Persuasion

Saturday, June 04, 2005
Matt Miller believes that the art of persuasion is dead. For once, I agree with him. Sort of.

If by persuasion, Miller means the use of logic and evidence to convince others of your opinion, then he is absolutely right. Even a cursory examination of today's political debate reveals how devoid of substance it is. The minute you mention a number, people go right to sleep. And many politicians engage in fallacies the way kids eat candy.

But rational discourse is not the only means of persuasion. It can also just mean the art of getting others to go along with you, whatever the means. And this art of alive and well. Every moment of every day we are bombarded with messages trying to get us to buy a product, acquire a service, or support a candidate. These messages have little to do with rational persuasion or dialectic, however. Instead they they make direct appeals to emotion (fear, nostalgia) in order to bypass the intellect. This is certainly a form of persuasion, albeit an insidious one.

One could argue (although I wouldn't) that the use of propaganda in commerce is harmless. But Miller rightly points out how corrosive it is in politics. Without reasoned debate, democratic politics is impossible. Citizens think critically. Consumers (and Subjects) just respond. The more our people are incapable of dialectic, the more that emotion rather than reason dominates our politics, the less democratic we will be.

So whose fault is it? Miller typically adopts the SCLM "pox on both your houses" attitude. This is convenient for him, because it allows him to adopt an above the fray style. Atrios rightly suggests that the media itself is partly to blame, since it pays so little attention to substance and is so unwilling to criticize falsehoods. One could also argue that as our culture has become more consumer-driven, it is inevitable that the tactics of marketers would infect politics. People have become conditioned to respond to emotional appeals in the marketplace, so some spillover into politics in inevitable.

But I believe that the factor most responsible are the Republicans. For the last few decades, they have consciously built a "message machine" whose function is not to convey ideas but to push propaganda. I think that Democrats would love a political debate that focused on substance. But it takes two to tango. Republicans have refused to enter the realm of true debate, so there can be none.

One of the original aims of this blog, to rebut conservative arguments, has proved largely abortive precisely because the right doesn't use rational arguments. It got boring listing all the fallacies, distortions and outright lies of the opposition. They didn't make many real arguments, and when they did they were pretty easy to rebut.

Why is the right so devoid of rational arguments? Why are they so desperate to use emotional appeals and propaganda? Because they are in a minority position - in a straightforward debate they will lose. Hence their avowedly Leninist tactics. I think the reason why the Republicans have become steadily more authoritarian and anti-democratic is not just that the substance of their position is conducive to these tendencies (which they are), but out of frustration that they can't seem to win any other way. Their only chance for success has been to pervert the substance and process of democracy, and so fanatical are they that they have chosen to do so. Which is what makes them so scary, and what makes it so necessary to stop them.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:27 AM
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