At the very core of Arendt’s thinking about politics is her view that politics is about opinions and not truth. We all come to politics with opinions formed at times by prejudices and at other times by reason and judgment. Political decisions are not true, but they are compromises and the result of discussion, debate, and deliberation, as well as dogmatism, ideology, and fear-mongering. Persuasion is the coin of politics but it is not always rational; it is often emotional and raw. That is why Arendt understands that the primary activity of political life is to speak and act with others in public, even with others one finds wrong and at times offensive. Politics is not about convincing others that you are right, but about coming to listen and speak with others to find a lowest common denominator from which we can agree to build a common world. At its best, a politics of persuasion appeals to reason, thoughtfulness, empathy, and common sense. But even when it falls short of that ideal, persuasion aims to build a common world, to discover what we all share and build on that foundation. Ross Douthat, the sometimes conservative columnist at the New York Times, is one of the great advocates for this Arendtian ideal of persuasion. Isaac Chotiner interviews him and Sam Moyn here.
Several times during lunch, I prodded Douthat on whether the right’s increasing distrust of liberal democracy is really the fault of liberal institutions. Perhaps a large portion of the right had turned into vaccine conspiracists who thought that Anthony Fauci belonged in prison not because of the failures of the élite, or because of natural human skepticism, but in part because of the media outlets that give airtime to Kennedy, or to Tucker Carlson?
When responding to such questions, Douthat often seems sincerely interested—out of some combination of self-preservation and genuine thoughtfulness—in phrasing his answers carefully. After a pause, he said, “Would I say that the New York Times should pluck someone from obscurity to write an op-ed saying that vaccines cause autism, because we find that five per cent of our readers think that, and they need to be represented? No, I would absolutely not say that. But the people who are making the argument already have a platform and an audience, so you need a way to engage it.” Douthat continued, “I think a lot of people in the world of The New Yorker and the New York Times decided in the Trump era that they didn’t even want to know where these ideas were coming from. It was just enough that they were bad. And I think you do have to figure out where those ideas were coming from.” Douthat was getting more animated; he smiled broadly, and waved his right hand in the air to emphasize his points. “What liberalism—élite liberalism, whatever you call it—doesn’t have is just a theory of persuasion.” He paused again. “That’s why, I mean, maybe I am a liberal if I’m interested in theories of persuasion.”