Lessons for Our Current Crisis from the Other Harry Jaffa
Can the Right persuade better?
Humility should haunt and guide anyone commenting on how others succeed or fail in persuasion. That is particularly the case if the comments are critical, as, with sadness, mine are of many efforts made by the Right. The critic’s own performance deserves to be judged harshly, and I don’t hope for anything more than a fair hearing from you. But how should we judge the persuasive effectiveness of our movement as a whole?
We have had many great persuaders on our side, and we still do. Our victories—even if they are just deferrals of defeat—aren’t attributable solely to the superiority of our ideas but also to the superiority of those who communicated them. Still, we have to do much better on the whole. The Left so rules the institutions and the culture that leftists scarcely have to persuade anyone of anything anymore. The boulder has no need to invent the lever.
Let’s have a look at some of some our tools and how we use them.
The Admiring Audience in the Mirror
A typical right-wing opinion piece can teach you things like these:
- Joe Biden is a rich, corrupt leftist with few left of the few mental faculties he ever had. His moderation was a lie.
- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is at the vanguard of a movement that threatens—in fact promises—to destroy the country.
- The federal Constitution has been shredded. We have few rights as citizens except as allowed to us from time to time by our rulers, in their discretion and as it suits their interests.
- The media are dangerously biased, and they no longer need to pretend otherwise. Same for the permanent government of the bureaucracy and the safe incumbents.
All true, but all known to all of you already. And chances are that you didn’t learn anything new to convince those who aren’t already likeminded. So we have to ask whether the creation or consumption of the piece was really worth the effort.1
Yes, even the most stalwart among us needs encouragement from friendly voices. And yes, some on the right are so brilliant and write so well that I want to hear from them even if I already agree with them. But consider instead the hypothetical author of yet another scorching piece on the Left’s anti-Americanism, maybe the 100th this month of the kind written for a conservative audience. Could the author have spent some of that energy instead on actually trying to advance the cause usefully? Perhaps working as a poll monitor? Perhaps writing an email to Aunt Matilda, who boasts of her independence, urging her to vote Republican in the midterms? Maybe more worthwhile than writing that 100th scorcher.
Pointing Out Hypocrisy: It’s Usually Pointless
“If liberals didn’t have double standards, they wouldn’t have any standards at all.” This is what often passes for wit in our circles.
It fails as wit and also as accusation, because the Left in fact has lots of standards. The standards don’t have the beauty of those that govern mathematical proof, but standards they are. Leftists have standards for what you may say, what you may think, and much else. If they had no standards, they wouldn’t be such effective adversaries.
The problem with the Left’s standards is that so many of them are bad or, on a good day, merely wrong—not that they don’t exist.
Ah, but they hypocritically apply standards selectively and often only to us, you say? Yes, that is true. But when the Left commits some outrage and doesn’t punish itself, we seldom muster anything more than this old saw: “Can you just imagine if this had been done by [insert Trump or someone else on the Right].” Yes, and is our point that associates act more in concert than in conflict? That’s not news. Nor, conversely, is it news that the principles-based self-immolations of conservatism have lost us many battles and don’t reflect sound strategic thinking on our part, even if we achieve consistency. Maybe we should learn from the Left and favor our own a bit more from time to time, even if it’s mildly hypocritical.
We should rarely bother accusing leftists of hypocrisy. Do we expect them to repent? “OK, I’m busted, and you’re right: I’ve been unfairly applying standards to you that I could not live by myself. I now pledge to live by them myself or, even better, to adopt your standards.” Nothing like that has ever been expressed online, just as a sociopath is by definition never cured by a pang of conscience.
If hypocrites don’t know they’re being hypocrites, they probably aren’t smart enough for you to worry about—and leftists are usually smart enough, at least for their purposes.
And it’s probably even worse to use the accusation of leftist hypocrisy to try to persuade a vacillating centrist, because that may have the effect of accusing the centrist of having engaged in similar hypocrisy or at least condoned it. Throwing insults, even by indirection, is not a good way to bring the centrist over to our side.
But let me offer a distinction:
- Accuse a leftist movie star of hypocrisy because he flies to a climate change conference on his private jet—useless.
- Try to convince the poor that the Left is lying to them about leftist policies, which ultimately only hurt the poor–hard to do, but useful to try and worth the effort. Lying and hypocrisy may be closely related, but the accusation of the former is effective because lying is primarily an offense against others, while hypocrisy may be primarily an offense against oneself.2
Pour Yourself a Drink While I Change Into Something More…Quotable
Here’s a mild exaggeration:
- Typical leftist persuasion: “We’ll all die fiery deaths in 12 years unless we pass this climate-change legislation today!” It’s a lie, but a vivid one. You can make fun of it, but you do so after quoting it verbatim from memory, just as you profess to hate that advertising jingle while you buy the jingled product. It’s successful.
- Typical rightist persuasion: “Our monetary and fiscal profligacy creates a risk of significant inflationary pressure—an unconscionable net transfer of wealth from future generations to ours. What would Reagan think?” Verbose abstraction followed by an appeal to authority that at best has no meaning for the interlocutor. Failure.
A current item of rightist persuasion is that “Kabul is Biden’s Saigon.” My guess is that almost nobody we want to persuade has any idea what that’s intended to mean. If we elaborate by reference to helicopters and rooftops, they may think we’re talking about props at a rave.
Maybe we should try harder to be quotably clear, with an appeal to contemporary events and emotions. We can lament that “contemporary” doesn’t include 1975 in our ahistorical age, but it would be better for us to just accept it and to read Gibbon on our own time.
And the Leftist Horse You Rode in On!
Our name-calling is usually ineffective and often cringey or worse. The late Rush Limbaugh did more for our cause, and more good for the world, than I could ever hope to achieve in a million lifetimes, but even he did us no good when he referred repeatedly to “feminazis.” As for conservatives generally, we’re usually not that funny, and we usually come across as small, not sharp, when we communicate by epithets like that. “But the Left does that all the time, and”—see above about hypocrisy.
One of the most ineffective labels we have for leftists is that they are “socialists—socialists, I say! The Democrats are bringing us socialism!” Our young interlocutor hears that as this: “You mean free stuff, allocated by fair people like me, not the cruel market? Great!” How about doing the harder work of explaining that leftists are destroyers and that the inevitable consequence of their policies is to enslave people?—and that means you too, kiddo, one day.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
Speaking of labels, the Left effectively rails against millionaires and billionaires to justify raising taxes on the most productive members of society and to restrict our freedoms by actual and threatened force of government. The most we usually come up with is that the Left is funded by millionaires and billionaires. That isn’t effective for a number of reasons.
First, a lot of those rich lefties are rich because they’ve produced things that Americans love. For example, you may not love many rich Hollywood types or their productions, but your fellow Americans do, and criticism of their wealth is an indirect criticism of the taste of the millions of people who made them rich.
Second, we sometimes point out that some rich leftist can afford to lose a huge amount of money to new taxes because the expropriation will still leave him or her with a huge amount of money. In contrast, we point out that the same isn’t true of us hard-working tillers of the soil or of spreadsheets, welders of widgets, graders of exams, and the like. This is little more than a variant of the hypocrisy argument. See above.
Third, we consistently miss the best argument here, which is that the Left seeks at all times to increase the number of one group of millionaires, fund their riches from our pockets, and then conspires to hide the group and their riches. The group is our beloved “public servants” and “civil servants.” If one of them can retire young on a public pension of over $100,000 a year, as many can, he or she is almost certainly a millionaire—in fact, almost certainly a multimillionaire. That’s because it would take millions of dollars for you to buy that stream of income from an insurance company that sells those streams, which are called annuities. So it’s a multimillion-dollar asset. But you would have to buy your annuity from the insurance company and spend the millions yourself, if you have them. The group I’m referring to gets their multimillion-dollar asset for free (i.e., from us).
Does Elizabeth Warren want to impose a wealth tax on members of that group, including herself, based on those multimillion dollar items of wealth? I’ll bet you a big fat annuity that she doesn’t want us even to know about this issue.
Yes, the math of annuities may not sell well as persuasion in a dangerously innumerate society. But couldn’t we collaborate and come up with a website and an app so you could just click on the name of your “representative” or on categories of people, and presto! you could see the wealth that they have, thanks to your taxes. Actually, without thanks—they stole it and treat you with ungrateful contempt.
This is a simple example of something that can be presented in an interesting graphic way for online access. Yes, annuities and calculations of value aren’t sexy to many people, but a picture of some pension-eligible “public servant” next to a $7 million pile of cash could be. Are there some tech-savvy people on our side who can spend a few hours to make this happen? Better than spending those hours writing about the fashion press’s unfair coverage of Melania Trump.
God Help Us—But Please, Only the Believers Among Us
Suppose you were trying to convince an atheist leftist or centrist that you had better ideas about an issue of public policy. Would it be:
(A) effective to invoke the authority of Scripture in your argument, perhaps adding items of personal revelation and your regret that the atheist will burn in Hell for holding beliefs opposed to yours; or
(B) well, maybe not so effective after all?
Too many on the Right choose (A). In doing so, they lose the argument and, for bonus points, taint many on the Right as what the Left unfairly and unkindly calls “religious crazies,” thereby losing many future arguments in advance.
And the invocation is unnecessary: Two of the most religious conservatives I know have never invoked their religious beliefs to make an argument to me about public policy (on the rare occasions when we disagree); they had no need to cite an authority they knew would have no authority for me; their intelligence and reason were enough. And in reciprocal respect for their beliefs, I have never invoked my atheism to make my argument to them. We can be truly inclusive in our approach here, and we should be.
The sad truth is that we won’t win over anyone who thinks we’re religious crazies, and the Left and much of the center think most of us are religious crazies. You say that’s unfair? I agree. And I agree that the anti-religious zeal of many leftists is frightening, and it’s unfair that they aren’t called out on it more. But if we’re going to whine about unfairness, we might as well be leftists.
Speaking of God, How About Finishing Our Goddam Sentences and Actually Making Some Goddam Arguments?
What follows may seem like a merely stylistic complaint, but it’s related to a bigger problem. Anyway, style counts a lot in persuasion.
Suppose someone wants to comment on how we’re piling up trillions of dollars of extra federal debt. He or she is rightly worried about how the money is being spent, because there are no market checks, and a lot of the loot is going to go to special interests and political cronies. And of course the Left has no plan to pay for any of this other than taxing the rich, which won’t really raise enough money even if they deserved it, and so it’s just theater. Sound familiar?
An all too typical comment from a right-wing politician or radio or TV person would be to string all these thoughts together in a gigantic noun phrase preceded by “The idea that” and ending, if at all grammatically, with no argumentation. Something like this from Senator X on a talk show:
“Well, I’m glad you brought that up, Privata. Our friends on the Left have just lost it on this proposal. I mean, the idea that we can pile up trillions of dollars of extra federal debt on top of the trillions already outstanding and distribute the proceeds without market checks and mostly to favor special interests and political cronies and, to add insult to injury, to have no plan or proposal to pay for any of this other than unachievable and theatrically punitive plans to plunder the supposedly undeserving rich…” If the senator remembers that this grotesque collection of words needs a verb, maybe she will huff and puff out “is just preposterous” or the like as a tacked-on close. After all, she probably has no breath left to attack any of the parts with anything like analysis or even pointed invective. More likely, the audience will just get some effort to pronounce the ellipses and, if it’s on video, some movement of hand and face muscles intended to convey exasperation at the self-evident folly of the Left’s plan. “The idea that…[remember to make a face and show palms].”
Guess what: If the folly were self-evident, the thing wouldn’t be happening. The kind of persuasion (if you can call it that) being offered by the senator is worthless, and it happens all the time. This is more than a stylistic point, because it reflects an attitude that all too many of our communicators have: What I’m saying is so obvious that I don’t even have to do any real work to persuade you.
That is strategically unwise and rude to the audience, Senator. Strategy and courtesy demand that you pick apart the problem and analyze each part, and then communicate each part and your analysis with clarity. If you have to work from an outline or notes, that’s OK; it won’t likely lower our assessment of your intelligence. But do the work or get off the air—sorry, I mean, the idea that someone, even a senior United States Senator, can just state a complicated problem and its likely consequences in some gigantic noun phrase without really analyzing each part and presenting cogent arguments that an audience can follow and maybe, just maybe, be persuaded by…[makes a face and shows palms].
To Use a Leftist Expression, What Is to Be Done?
What is to be done is to acknowledge our deficiencies and to try to do better—a simple point but apparently not obvious to the leaders and cadres of the Right. We’re just not getting through to people enough to win.
Mindful though I am of the need for humility, I would like to offer a few recommendations that are derived from the topics discussed above, in the order of those topic. Those topics aren’t comprehensive, and the order isn’t necessarily the order of their importance. But here goes:
- We have to persuade others, not ourselves. We should therefore try to understand what our communications say to others, particularly those who don’t agree with us. A chat among friends may bring pleasure and maybe some insight, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves about its utility.
- We shouldn’t bother attacking the Left for its hypocrisy. When we do that, we’re just paying another leftist tax—here, a tax on our time. Our time is more valuable than that, and so is the time of our audience. OK, OK—we can do it occasionally for fun, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves about its utility.
- Instead of being dull, let’s try to be interesting. Let’s be quotable even if they snarl when they quote us. Any recent occupant of the White House come to mind?
- We shouldn’t be unduly insulting. Unless we have the insulting talent of Don Rickles or Donald Trump, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about its utility, and we’ll never get an even break from the mainstream media, even though our breaches of civility are much rarer than those of the Left.
- We should look for ways to persuade with arresting concepts, numbers and images, not just torrents of abstract words.
- We should leave God out of it as much as possible. If He is in fact ubiquitous, He doesn’t need our scribblings to magnify His presence. If we’re trying to persuade someone who isn’t religious, it will backfire spectacularly. It’ll also be easier get help from the irreligious Right, and there are a lot of us.
- We should do the work of actually organizing our thoughts and making our arguments. Our arguments and our audience deserve no less. They certainly don’t deserve the Senator droning on in non-sentences and persuading nobody. We should do the work or leave the persuading to others.
If we were leftists with control of things, we would centralize and collectivize a solution to this problem. Because we’re not, our task is harder. But it’s not impossible—or at least I hope not.
1 You could be forgiven for suspecting that the real purpose of some of the right-wing materials disseminated to you is to persuade you to send money. It may be a good living for the sponsors without really helping the cause.
2 On the one hand, trotting out La Rochefoucauld’s maxim about hypocrisy is a tired convention of discussions of the topic. On the other hand, conservatives know that conventions have useful cultural roles—at least those conventions not enforced by the Left. Well, here goes: “L’hypocrisie est un hommage que le vice rend à la vertu.” Incidentally, the usual English translation, to the effect that hypocrisy is the compliment that vice pays to virtue, misses a subtlety: the original is to the effect that hypocrisy is a compliment that vice pays to virtue. The indefinite article is darker. Too bad the duke isn’t available to ghostwrite for us.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.