The Persuasive Power of Talk in Participatory Politics
In a pragmatist politics, there is no Archimedean point outside of our practices from which we can take measure and make deductions about what those practices should be. We must instead rely on the resources that are available to us within our practices themselves in order to assess and improve them. This has consequences for the way we conceive of democracy and the role that talk plays within it.
I will first briefly sketch out what I take participatory politics to be. I will then outline the functions that talk performs in a democracy, as well as its persuasive power. After that, I will turn to rational choice models of democracy and show how they fall short. I will use the abortion discussion and the battle for the ERA to illustrate some of the problems with these models. Finally, I will conclude by affirming the importance of talk in democracy and outlining some of the ways in which it can be used to promote the common good.
2. What is participatory politics?
In a participatory politics, citizens do not simply delegate authority to elected representatives who then make decisions on their behalf. Instead, citizens are actively involved in shaping the policies and institutions that govern their lives. This can take many different forms, from voting and campaigning, to protesting and civil disobedience, to more informal forms of political participation such as discussing current affairs with friends and family or participating in online forums and social media debates.
The key idea here is that democracy is not simply a form of government, it is a way of life. It is not something that we do once every few years at the ballot box, it is something that we do every day in our interactions with each other. And just as importantly, it is something that we can always learn to do better.
3. The nine functions of democratic talk:
In a democracy, talk plays a crucial role in enabling citizens to participate in the political process. It allows us to communicate our needs and wants to those in power, and it provides a forum for debate and discussion on the issues that matter to us. In his book Pragmatism and Political Theory, James Searing outlines nine functions that talk performs in a democracy:
1. Talk informs us about politics;
2) Talk persuades us about politics;
3) Talk involves us emotionally in politics;
4. Talk coordinates action in politics;
5) Talk creates solidarities in politics;
6) Talk expresses our values in politics;
7. Talk defines who we are as political beings;
8) Talk negotiates conflicts in politics;
9)Talk makes us reflect on our motives and objectives in politics. Each of these functions is important in its own right, but together they provide a comprehensive account of the role that talk plays in participatory politics. In what follows, I will discuss each function in turn.
4. The persuasive power of democratic talk: One function of talk is persuasion: «the art or process of influencing or convincing people by Presenting arguments» (Searing 2006, p.61). In a democracy, persuasion is not limited to formal debates or speeches, but happens all the time in our everyday interactions with each other. When we discuss current affairs with friends or family, when we post comments on social media, or when we simply talk to our neighbors, we are engaged in a process of persuasion.
The persuasive power of talk should not be underestimated. In his book on argumentation, Stephen Toulmin points out that «our everyday conversational exchanges are in fact crammed with more argument than we realize» (Toulmin 2003, p.11). All too often, we allow ourselves to be swayed by the arguments of others without even realizing it. The reason for this is that «reasoned persuasion [is] only one component of the total process of decision-making which also draws upon factors such as personal values, emotions, and social pressure» (p.12). In other words, the power of persuasion is not just a matter of logic, it is also a matter of emotion and social pressure.
5. Rational choice models of democracy: Rational choice models have become increasingly popular in recent years, both in academic circles and in the public sphere. The basic idea behind these models is that «people are utility-maximizing agents who make choices that are in their own self-interest» (Friedman 1953, p.13). In other words, people are like little machines that can be counted on to make the «right» decisions if they are given enough information.
There are many problems with this view of human nature, not least of which is that it is deeply reductionist. It fails to take into account the many different factors that influence our decisions, such as our values, emotions, and social pressures. But even if we put aside these concerns and focus solely on the question of persuasion, rational choice models still fall short. The reason for this is that they «ignore the role of rhetoric in persuasion» (Searing 2006, p.62). Rhetoric is «the art or technique of using language effectively and persuasively in spoken or written form» (Oxford Dictionary). It is what allows us to communicate our ideas clearly and persuasively to others. But rational choice models completely ignore the role that rhetoric plays in persuasion. As a result, they are unable to explain how citizens are able to persuade each other in a democracy.
6. The abortion discussion: The abortion discussion is a prime example of the problems with rational choice models of democracy. On the one hand, there are those who argue that women have a right to choose what happens to their bodies and that abortion should be legal and accessible to all women regardless of their circumstances. On the other hand, there are those who argue that abortion is morally wrong and that it should be illegal except in cases where the life of the mother is at risk.
The two sides have been locked in an intractable debate for decades, with neither side showing any signs of budging. If rational choice models were correct, then we would expect one side or the other to eventually «win» the debate through sheer force of logic. But this has not happened. Instead, the debate has remained stalemated because both sides have been equally unable to persuade the other. This is not because they are irrational, but because they are using different forms of reasoning altogether. The pro-choice side tends to reason from a position of autonomy, while the pro-life side tends to reason from a position of morality. Neither side is able to convince the other because they are speaking different languages altogether.
7. The battle for the ERA: The battle for the ERA is another example of the problems with rational choice models of democracy. The ERA was a proposed amendment to the US Constitution that would have guaranteed equality of rights for all citizens regardless of sex. It was first introduced in Congress in 1923, but it was not ratified by the required number of states until 1972.
During the intervening years, there was a heated debate over the amendment, with both sides marshalling arguments in support of their position. But despite the fact that both sides had strong arguments on their side, the ERA was not ratified until 1972. Why?
The answer, once again, has to do with rhetoric. The pro-ERA side was much better at persuading people than the anti-ERA side. They were able to appeal to people’s sense of fairness and justice, and they were able to frame the debate in terms of civil rights. As a result, they were able to win over many people who were initially opposed to the amendment. The anti-ERA side, on the other hand, was not able to match the pro-ERA side’s skill at persuasion. Their arguments tended to be more abstract and less relatable, and as a result, they failed to convince many people.
8. Affiliation and affection: In a democracy, talk not only persuades us, it also creates solidarities. When we talk to each other about politics, we develop affinities and attachments with each other that go beyond simple agreement on certain issues. We come to see each other as fellow citizens who share a common interest in the welfare of our country. This is what Hannah Arendt calls «affiliation»: «the whole complex of dyadic relations in which we stand vis-a-vis other human beings» (Arendt 1958, p.41). Affiliation is what allows us to see each other as more than just «utility-maximizing agents»; it allows us to see each other as human beings worthy of respect and concern.
9. Talk retains cognitive structure in exploring mutuality: One final function of talk is that it helps us to reflect on our own motives and objectives. In a democracy, we are constantly bombarded with information from all sides, and it can be difficult to know what to believe and what to disbelieve. Talk provides a forum for us to slow down and reflect on the issues that matter to us. It helps us to clarify our thoughts and to develop a more nuanced understanding of the world around us.
Talk also helps us to understand the perspectives of others. When we engage in discussion with those who hold different opinions from us, we are forced to confront our own prejudices and preconceptions. We are forced to consider arguments that we might never have thought of on our own. As a result, we develop a more sophisticated understanding of the issues at stake, and we are better equipped to make informed decisions about how to vote or what policies to support.
10. Emotional expression: In addition to being a form of persuasion, talk is also «a way of involving ourselves emotionally in politics» (Searing 2006, p.63). When we discuss political issues with each other, we inevitably express our emotions about those issues. We might feel anger about an injustice that has
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