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Making Arguments that Move the Human Heart

Andy Ferguson did what probably no other American outside of Newt Gingrich has done: read all 21 books authored or co-authored by the former Speaker of the House. And the result is a New York Times Magazine article that is funny, witty and insightful.

There’s one point in particular made by Ferguson, who writes the monthly “Press Man” column for COMMENTARY, that I want to highlight:

“To Renew America” marks the moment that persuasion faded as a primary purpose of political talk and preaching to the choir took over. Having won at last, and confident that the future was safely in his pocket, Gingrich by 1995 no longer saw a reason to persuade anyone and didn’t try. It’s the victor’s prerogative, but it doesn’t give you practice in constructing arguments.

That is quite an important observation. There are exceptions, of course, but many politicians, columnists, and commentators tend to fall into one of two camps: those who are interested in persuasion and those who see their task as stoking the embers of the already-convinced. We saw successful examples of both during the American founding, including the Federalist Papers (James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay) and Common Sense (Thomas Paine). The first approach is meant to appeal to the intellect and the undecided; the second appeals primarily (though not exclusively) to emotion and the true believers. Practitioners of each approach possess different skill sets; they also face different dilemmas.

For the former, the danger is that a style that seeks to be precise becomes pedantic. They find themselves unable to move people, to summon them to a great cause. “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know,” in the words of Pascal. And for those who preach to the choir, the danger is their premises and facts are taken for granted by like-minded audiences because they reinforce existing impressions. Claims aren’t held up to scrutiny. There’s also the temptation, one most of us are fully familiar with, to portray those who hold beliefs different than our own in distorted ways. Cartoon figures are easier to rebut than real ones.

Those who are used to inhabiting one world often have a rough time transitioning to the other. Lines that garner applause before one audience are off-putting to another. For example, warning  that one’s grandchildren might eventually live “in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American” probably goes down better among the faithful than it does among the undecided, for whom this rhetoric might come across as alarmist.

The greatest politicians and writers have shown the capacity to inspire the converted while winning over the yet-to-be-converted, to employ rhetoric that is powerful and reasonable, and to make arguments in ways that move the human heart. Relatively few figures in American history have done that particularly well. Many others have not, and Ferguson’s article reminds us what can be lost in the process.



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