The headline made a promise that E.J. Dionne failed to keep.
Impeachment and the lost art of persuasion
Is persuasion a “lost art”? Is the failure to change minds about the wrongfulness, the impeachability, of Trump’s conduct a “lost are of persuasion” problem? Dionne makes his proffer.
The genius of the civil rights movement of the 1960s is that it really did bring home the nature of racial injustice in our country. The Great Recession and the agitation of Occupy Wall Street and other groups altered the way we discuss economic inequality. The feminist movement transformed the way we think about gender roles, while the movement for LGBTQ rights revolutionized our view of sexual identity. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shifted the debate about guns in fundamental ways.
Are you persuaded yet? Wait, there’s more.
I doubt all this history was going through House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s mind last Thursday when she wheeled around in anger after James Rosen of the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group asked her, “Do you hate the president, Madame Speaker?” But the larger lesson of the American story certainly was.
Her answer brought cheers from her admirers, especially from liberal Catholics who were buoyed by her insistence that “as a Catholic, I resent your using the word ‘hate’ in a sentence that addresses me. I don’t hate anyone.” It was bracing to see Catholicism invoked as a call to Christian love and prayer — especially for Trump.
Certainly this will turn a nation’s head toward impeachment, right? Well, except for anyone who isn’t already a true believer for one side or the other. Dionne’s headline had a point, and Dionne’s proves it in the breach. Spewing the same nonsense that makes your heart go aflutter doesn’t persuade anyone who isn’t already singing castrato in your choir.
If the purpose is to persuade someone, which by definition means they are not already on your team for if they were, they wouldn’t need to be persuaded, the means of doing so isn’t by appealing to what matters to you, but what matters to them. You wouldn’t think this is a hard concept, even if it eludes Dionne completely, but it is. Indeed, it has become a “lost art.”
But Pelosi was on to something else as well. She knows that Trump’s apologists want to keep the focus on the motives of the president’s opponents and to make this battle about nothing more than partisanship.
Pelosi’s invocation of her faith was one way to blow up this narrative, but her care in separating out her political disagreements with Trump (on immigration, guns and climate change) from the reasons for impeachment (his abuse of power and constitutional violations) reflected an awareness that opinion about impeachment is still fluid. Yes, there is room for persuasion.
To the extent Dionne is making an argument, it would appear to be that since Trump supporters are religious, Pelosi’s invocation of her Catholicism should win them over. After all, if Pelosi believes in religion, surely she will win their hearts and minds. After all, what more do they need to prove her righteousness?
This means that those who see impeachment as a moral imperative need to avoid playing to their own gallery and should fight rather than reinforce the culture-war narratives Trump is counting on.
Is that all it takes, Pelosi saying she’s Catholic to win over the approximately 25% of Americans who remain undecided about impeachment? Putting aside that the religious right and the middle ground of undecided Americans aren’t likely to overlap all that much, since the former is already firmly in the Trump camp while the latter don’t go to revival meetings on a regular basis, how does Dionne not grasp that he’s so deeply stuck on the absolute righteousness of his tribe so as to have no idea that there are people out there whose world hasn’t been consumed by every progressive ideal he holds dear?
There’s no doubt that persuasion is a lost art these days, as people of good will, like Dionne, find it impossible to consider that there is a possibility that other people of good will don’t agree with them. But if he believes that something as insignificant as the mere mention of a religion will be the tipping point to make a quarter of Americans pray at his altar, then no one will be persuaded.
The problem isn’t just that persuasion is a lost art, but that Dionne can’t conceive of what anyone outside his tribe is thinking or feeling, and without that ability, he will never persuade anyone who doesn’t already believe.