Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Argumentation and Demagoguery

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who say that there are two kinds of people in the world and everyone else. But seriously, I'm starting to think that in politics, there really are two kinds of people: those who reach out to the unconvinced, hoping to persuade them (rationally) to come around, and those who preach to (and seek to rile) the converted.

I got to thinking about this while watching Hardball this evening. One of the guests was Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation. She has always struck me as excessively, even hysterically, partisan. Like Ann Coulter, she uses manipulative rhetoric and plays fast and loose with the truth. They are intellectually dishonest. I can't imagine anyone listening to either of them and being persuaded. That is to say, I can't imagine anyone who doesn't already agree with them coming around to their position as a result of what they say. It's not just their manner, which is smug and obnoxious; it's that they don't even try to find out what their interlocutors believe. In order to persuade you of proposition p, I must show you that p follows from something else you believe and are unwilling to give up. If anything, vanden Heuvel and Coulter alienate the undecided.

So why do they act as they do? Why would they act in a way that is calculated to turn people away from them? That's perverse! I think it's because they're not trying to persuade. They're trying to motivate. They want people to share their anger and resentment toward others. (Why they're angry and resentful is a question best left to therapists.) They want their readers/listeners to feel like part of a crowd instead of thinking things through for themselves. They want to rile the converted.

This, of course, is the essence of demagoguery: appealing to the basest instincts of the mob. As any sociologist will tell you, the intelligence of a mob is less than the sum of the intelligences of its members. It's shameful. It's disgraceful. Vanden Heuvel, Coulter, and their ilk have coarsened our political discourse and poisoned our minds. They want us to view our political adversaries as enemies. I'm sorry, but as much as I disliked Bill Clinton personally and disagreed with (many of) his policies, he was not my enemy. Nor, despite the hateful rhetoric of vanden Heuvel et al., is George W. Bush any American's enemy.

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