The Left Has Lost The Art Of Persuasion
There is much to be said in critique of the philosophes who pioneered the Enlightenment. They were arrogant, and naive, and above all else guilty of the first sin of far too many to-cleaver-by-half men in assuming all of their fellows were all of a similar mental filigree to themselves; this of course led to them abandoning the traditional wisdom of generations that came before them to instead embrace a radical utopian way of thinking that would turn the entire world upon its head, leaving us even now reeling from the upheaval of it. What could not be said of Kant and Voltaire and Montesquieu and even that greatest charlatan of them all Rousseau was that they were men unafraid to make their case to the public. Very much figures outside the established consensus of their age, and at times facing the full on opposition of both Church and State, the philosophes had little recourse but to argue their beliefs in the attempt of convincing people to their way of thinking via writing, and debating, and discussion. They did so with such skill and resolve that eventually their victory in the arena of ideas was so complete that today we live in an age where intellectually we are dominated by a total consensus around the ideals of the Enlightenment. Even mainstream conservatives today seek only to conserve liberalism in its most classical sense (oh how the meaning of all words can be twisted in ways beyond imagining).
As often is the case, however, every revolution ultimately carries within it that which will ultimately cannibalize it and the Enlightenment was no different. So total is its victory, and such complete dominance have its disciples come to have over everything aspect of public life from academia, to the media, to the late night talk shows, that modern-day progressives have completely lost of the art of actually having to persuade people.
This should come as no surprise. After all, every good lefty worth their salt has been raised since birth (or at least admission to university) to know that anyone standing against them is simply on the wrong side of the inevitable march of history, and in short order shall be consigned to its dustbin just as every evil humbug that preceded them has. The inherent rightness of the progressive cause is so self-apparent, so beyond needing anything so unnecessary as justification or even explanation, that anyone not immediately on board without reservation or qualification must surely be a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a transphobe or some other form of pure evil. You wouldn’t waste time trying to reason with Adolf Hitler, after all? Why do so with his modern-day equivalents, which of course is anyone and everyone on the other side.
Look no further than the most recent American election to see the perfect example of this, where Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton ran perhaps the most shallow and uninspiring campaign in history. “I’m With Her” was the often repeated slogan of her march towards the presidency, but can anyone actually remember a case being made as for why anyone actually should have been with her (beyond apparently it being her turn after standing ever so dutifully by Bill as he jumped on anything female that moved, likely giving those that didn’t a good shake just to make certain they were dead before moving on).
There certainly wasn’t much from Clinton to suggest what she would do once she took her entitled place in the Oval Office. I vaguely recall a pledge to introduce a 65% estate tax, and the occasional mention of something to do with daycare spaces and access to abortion, but beyond that her campaign message was simply an incessant and unceasing mantra that her Republican opponent, the now President Donald Trump, was simply unsuitable and unimaginable as an alternative to her and anyone even thinking of voting for him was part of “a basket of deplorables”. Racist, sexist, homophobe, Nazi, Russian patsy, so went the refrain. Did you know his father was once seen somewhere in the vicinity of a KKK rally decades ago? How about how he and his brother apparently had a bitter falling out over the family will? Had President Trump’s unfortunate habit of eating his steaks extra well done with ketchup come to light during the campaign that likely would have found its way into a Clinton campaign add somehow.
Turn your eyes to most college campuses these days and the picture takes on a far darker tone. From the rise of safe spaces and trigger warnings to the increasingly violent tactics of Social Justice Warriors to such down speakers and events they oppose, what we are witnessing there is not just the attitude that the rightness of the progressive utopia is so apparent it does not even need explaining but that any opposing ideas or narrative cannot even be tolerated and must be shut down by any means necessary. This is where the road truly becomes dangerous. Rousseau himself once proclaimed that sometimes we must force our brothers to be free, and throughout history his disciples have sought to do so whether it was by guilotines or gas chambers or man made famines. Once any set of ideas becomes beyond question any manner of nasty things suddenly are permissible.
Yet as often is the case, it is when you are most powerful and most confident in yourself that you are least able to see those growing threats off in the far off, unlablled parts of the map. In the case of Hillary Clinton, just enough voters were turned off by her campaign’s insessant refrain of “Just shut up and do what the smart people are telling you, stupid!” that Donald Trump was able to eke out a victory at the last moment by the tiniest of margins. When you’ve been unchallenged for your entire life, you often find yourself completely flat footed when someone eventually dares to ask you “Why?” and wholly unsuited to provide a response.
As the left increasingly finds itself upon the ropes, battered by Brexit, and Trump, and the rise of an increasingly ascendant illiberalism across the globe, it would do well to look to its original founders and rediscover the lost art of persuasion. This will require them to rediscover the courage to not only hear criticisms and oppositon to their previously unquestionable sacred cows but also stoop to actually defending them, but if they do not they may well find that sacred cows are often the best kind to slaughter.