The Death of Persuasion

Persuade (v): to move by argument, entreaty, or expostulation to a belief, position, or course of action

Merriam-Webster Dictionary


Seemingly all we hear about today, and in the recent past, when it comes to elections is the value of ‘base turnout’ and which party will be able to get more of their voters to go to the polls and vote on Election Day. We hear about Democrats turning out their base voters with anti-Trump messaging, or the Republicans turning out their base voters with fear-mongering around guns and immigration. But this isn’t the only way to win elections. There is an ancient art, called persuasion, that has largely fallen out of vogue with the politicians and voters of our age. Why?

To understand this, we first need to discuss the idea of the ‘base voter’. A party’s ‘base’ is a group of voters who “almost always support a single party’s candidates for elected office” and are “unlikely to vote for the candidate of an opposing party, regardless of the specific views each candidate holds.” This phenomenon is not exclusive to the United States, but we have moved further and further towards this sort of voting as time has passed. At the zenith of what is called ‘split-ticket voting’, which is the act of voting for one party for one position and another for a separate position (i.e. Republican for President, Democrat for Senator), a full 28% of US voters split their tickets (1972 election of Nixon). From the 1950s through the early 1990s, there were significant numbers of Senators and Representatives who were either conservative Democrats (largely in the South) or more liberal Republicans (mostly on the East Coast); just look at former Governor Nelson Rockefeller (R-NY) or Senator Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX) for examples that look super-bizarre today. Since that 1972 high-water mark, however, split-ticket voting has largely gone the way of the dodo; only 10% of voters split their ticket in 2012, for example.

Nelson Rockefeller
Former NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller, a *gasp* liberal Republican.     Image Credit: Politico

What does this have to do with persuasion as a tactic? As it turns out, a whole hell of a lot. As each party has increasingly solidified its platform, neither tends to brook much opposition internally. Of course, you’ll have the variations on the same theme, like Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who is quite liberal, or Rand Paul (R-KY), who is a libertarian, but by and large the parties each internally agree on almost all positions. Today, you will find almost no conservative Democrats or liberal Republicans, and the ossification of party platforms partially explains this. One can see this split clearly in the voting records. According to the excellent statistics-focused site Five Thirty Eight, the Republican senator who has thus far voted least with President Trump’s stated priority was Rand Paul, who still voted with the President over 75% of the time. For Democrats, the most frequent Trump-supporting senator was Doug Jones (D-AL), who voted with the President 61.5% of the time (Joe Manchin III of West Virginia is a close second at 61.4%). The average Republican senator voted with the President a stunning 92.35% of the time, while the average Democratic senator (Angus King & Bernie Sanders, both independents, are included here) voted with the President only 28.41% of the time. That difference is staggering and it is the result of the parties both becoming more ideologically isolated from each other and simultaneously becoming more ideologically ‘pure’ internally.

I see this partly as a result of the splitting of what’s called the ‘Overton window’ into two separate and entirely segmented windows of discourse. The Overton window is a political science concept that suggests that there is a range of ideas that are tolerated within the broader public conversation, and that ideas that fall outside of this window are not tolerated or seen as legitimate. Over the past decade or so, the trend for the Overton window was to move to the left, but this was shattered by the election of President Trump and the corresponding 2016 campaign. At this point, I believe that we have two entirely distinct Overton windows that only overlap in small parts (picture a Venn diagram with little in common), one for Republicans and another for Democrats. Each party has become more ideologically rigid internally, while at the same time complaining that the ideas of the other are ‘out of bounds’ for political discussion (just think about the intensity and talking-past-each-other that occurs anytime people debate abortion). This is a serious problem for American political discourse, as it increases partisan polarization as well as tribalism between and among parties.

Independent Affiliation
Party affiliation over time.     Image Credit: The GailFosler Group

This brings me all the way back to the beginning of this piece and the concept of persuasion. Persuasion is, to me, the most honest way of going about trying to win voters to your side or to get them to favor your proposed policy. Its roots in politics and democracy go all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who found the power of oratory to be the highest and best use of a person’s political energies. Today, we rarely see persuasion used as a political strategy, as the most active and energetic voters are already tied to one party or the other. Instead, we see politicians focus on attacking their opponents, demonizing the other party, and making fairly outrageous claims about the negative impacts of the policies of the rival party. This sort of campaigning surely drives the turnout of one’s political base, who are by definition already convinced, but also serves to alienate the broader public. As of early April 2018, more Americans by far identified themselves as politically independent than as either Republicans or Democrats; in fact, both parties combined still only surpass the share of the population that identifies as independent by 8 percentage points.

And yet both parties seem to be pushing more towards a base turnout model of campaigning instead of a more inclusive persuasion model. As the acrimony between those of different political parties increases (see my latest podcast for a discussion of this), we will come to see far more of this negative electioneering than we have before. Unfortunately, I think our current political age spells the death of persuasion as a widespread political strategy. Cicero and Pericles weep for our loss.

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