Aristotle taught that there were three elements to persuasive rhetoric: ethos (involving the reputation and credibility of the speaker); logos (involving an appeal to reason and logic); and pathos (involving an emotional appeal to the values of the audience).
In other words, the persuasiveness of an argument depends on 1) the credentials, history, and character of the speaker; 2) the power of the facts, deductions, and analogies contained in the argument; and 3) the connection that the argument makes with the emotional — especially power and fear — centers of the brain.
Modern American conservative rhetoric has laid waste to all of this but the tail end. In a movement where people as unserious as George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Donald Trump hold sway as appropriately credentialed and apparently credible messengers, ethos has gone the way of the West African Black Rhino. And facts? What are facts to the average American tea partier but someone else’s opinions.
Take two examples from just this week. In a recent poll, only 29% of Republicans (compared to 86% of Democrats) expressed serious concern over Russia’s interference with the 2016 presidential election. This can only be because Republicans, by and large, believe Trump when he says the Russians didn’t do it (or at least that The US can’t prove that Russia did) and view with skepticism those who say that Russia did it: you know, those experts in American intelligence agencies who have spent their adult lives studying Russia, Vladimir Putin, Russian capabilities, Russian tactics, and Russian technology. Experience? Credentials? Credibility? They’re worth nothing to the average American conservative. Expertise makes one an elitist; and as far as Republicans are concerned, this is to say that the more a person knows about something, the less he is to be believed.
Meanwhile, in another recent poll, we learn that 52% of Republicans believe that Donald Trump won the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election. He did not. He lost by 2.8 million votes. Last the Chimps checked, 2.8 million was a number; a sum certain; a concrete phenomenon with measurable and irreducible properties. But here’s how a logic- and reason-based argument with a Republican begins:
Logical human: “Hillary got more votes than Trump.”
Republican: “No she didn’t.”
This is the way of it among people who regard facts as mere beliefs. Climate change, for example, is something a tea partier thinks some people believe in and some people don’t – kind of like ghosts, UFO’s, Santa Claus, or the Virgin Birth. Those things called thermometers that scientists (people with expertise and PhD’s) float on buoys in the oceans to display numbers that represent this newfangled construct called temperature? Utterly unpersuasive to your average Republican.
But we’d better understand this, and we’d better start finding ways to reach these people. That’s because they do two things enthusiastically and often: copulate and vote. And these are people who respond to both ethos (credibility and credentials) and logos (reason and facts) with indifference at best and utter contempt at worst.
That leaves us with their emotions. These two recent polls prove once again what the Chimps have been saying: it’s all about fear and anger and power. That’s uncharted territory for many progressives, but it’s territory we’re going to have to cover.