Persuasive explanation

Persuasive or rhetorical explanation is the non-argumentative strategy of increasing critical scrutiny on one side of an issue by way of explaining a disagreement or situation in terms of some failure on the other side.  So, for example, if we ask why S doesn’t give to charity, we might then place the burden of proof on those defending S to not only explain S’s actions, but also dispel the thought that S is selfish.  Or if S avoids a confrontation, we challenge the other side to show that S isn’t spineless.

Victor Davis Hanson has a rhetorical explanation for why the base of the Democratic Party has stuck with President Obama through all the controversies, ranging from Benghazi, to the IRS targeting Tea Party oufits, to the botched rollout of the ACA (AKA “Obamacare”).

In short, Obama will always poll around 45 percent. That core support is his lasting legacy. In a mere five years, by the vast expansion of federal spending, by the demonizing rhetoric of his partisan bully pulpit, and by executive orders and bizarre appointments, Obama has so divided the nation that he has created a permanent constituency that will never care as much about what he does as it cares about what he says and represents.

For elite rich liberals, whose money and privilege exempt them from the consequences of Obama’s policies, and their own ideology, he will always be their totem. He is iconic of their own progressivism and proof of their racial liberalism, and thus allows them to go on enjoying their privilege, without guilt and without worrying too much about how they got it or whether they might lose it.

Now, for sure, there has been some pretty scandalous behavior from the White House, and heads have rolled.  Nobody can, really, repeat Bob Dole’s “Where’s the Outrage?” challenge.  Perhaps an alternate story could be told about the outrage mongers.  In trying to keep their own base in a permanent state of fury, they’ve had to bloat anything that even hinted of error from the White House into the outrage du jour.  And it’s had boy who cried wolf effects on their credibility and the capacity of anyone to be properly outraged.  (For a recent example of outrage machines  making noise, take a peek at the Obama with his feet on the Oval Office desk story: HERE.)

Oh, and rich white liberals might support the President because they see his policies as overall in the right direction, even if he makes errors (even egregious ones) in the process.  That’s partly the Republicans’ fault, too. Most political support, you know, is made on the basis of comparative judgment.

5 thoughts on “Persuasive explanation”

  1. I think you’re correct about the bloat.

    Presenting a logical case doesn’t hurt when you’re preaching to the choir, but perhaps what VDH best illustrates is that it’s often not necessary. When you get paid to do little more than reinforce the preconceptions of people who aren’t much interested in the facts, and few others are going to waste their time with you, there’s no doubt temptation to simply “phone it in”.

  2. Hi Aaron, Agreed. And one thing to note about the ‘phone it in’ phenomenon is that if your preferred audience is composed of those who (i) already agree with you, and (ii) already hold your dialectical opponent in contempt, it’s not hard to make your case. I don’t begrudge anyone some time talking to their friends and rallying their allies, but the problem is that when this mode of communication is the default, there’s nothing but polarized discourse. And the best explanation VDH can come up with for rich liberals being Democrats is their white guilt.

  3. Scott, I think you nailed this with these two observations: (i) VDH is talking to friends and (ii) he holds opponents in contempt. I’d add this further point about explanations. Normally, we enter the explanatory mode when we already know that some curious fact x is true. In this case, Obama is a miserable failure yet 45 percent continue to support him. So now the question is why this curious fact is true.

    Of course that’s just ridiculous. And the fact that VDH has entered the explanatory mode is a sign either of (i) his ideological polarization (he can’t see it any other way), (ii) his disregard of the actual rhetorical state of the issue (the jury is actually still out on this question–Obama’s suckiness needs proof not explanation), or more likely (iii) he’s confusing modes of discourse to make Obama’s failure look like a settled question, when it’s not. It’s a akin to the complex question technique: why do you suck so bad? The last of these I think is what you mean by the persuasive explanation.

    I think this is a very common kind of strategy–and one I see on many liberal blogs. There the main question isn’t whether some view x is true, but what explains the fact the some group x holds that view (which is self-evidently horrible).

  4. Hey John, I think your observation is spot-on. In some ways, explanations are like complex questions. When someone asks a “how” question, they’ve supposed “that”. (E.g., “How do pigs fly?”) And so when VDH gives a “why” explanation for the combination of lasting Obama support in the face of his obvious failure, VDH has supposed the failure’s obvious. That’s what talking to friends will do, won’t it?

  5. I have to say I agree with you guys, there is far to much “rhetorical explaining” and far to little arguing. And in this case, it seems both left and right have a problem with it, as an example of this look no further than Republican Gomorrah, by Max Blumenthal. The book goes beyond being a mere rhetorical explanation and amounts to 300+ pages of nasty ad-hominem attacks on people Max disagrees with.

    The book (Republican Gomorrah) also manages to be aggressively stupid. His thesis, that social conservatives embrace their views because they screwed up their own lives with reckless behavior, doesn’t even work as a rhetorical explanation. If certain lifestyle choices turned out poorly for you, shouldn’t you discourage other people from making the same mistakes?

    At the root of all this, people on both the right and the left share a desire to avoid ideas they disagree with, a desire to conform to the norms of their little group, and if you cultivate contempt for the other side, then that is much easier to do.

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