TCS Daily

The Downfall of the Anointed

By Arnold Kling - February 2, 2004 12:00 AM

"'For, the goal is to mobilize like-minded people to action against the Republican agenda, not to persuade them that it's wrong,' said Eli Pariser, the group's campaign director.

"'Changing people's minds is overrated,' Mr. Pariser said. 'Most of the people in this country are with us, and it's a matter of getting them active and getting them informed."'
-- Amy Harmon, "Politics of the Web: Meet, Greet, Segregate, Meet Again," The New York Times, January 25, 2004.

I find Mr. Pariser's remark that "changing people's minds is overrated" to be one of the most offensive political statements I have ever heard. Later, I will try to explain why it bothered me so much. First, I want to show how it relates to Dean's disappointing performance in Iowa and New Hampshire

A number of reasons have been offered for Dean's downfall. Some suggest that the major news media turned against him. Others say that his television commercials were ineffective. Finally, there is the hypothesis that the campaign's novel uses of the Internet distorted reality. For example, Clay Shirky argued that Dean's supporters were too intoxicated with their Internet success to leave their keyboards and go vote. David Weinberger has been discussing these explanations on his new blog, Loose Democracy. I find none of them persuasive.

I believe that to account for Dean's losses one has to come up with a theory that fits the following facts.

  • Howard Dean was clearly far ahead in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire two weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

  • Tracking polls showed that Dean's decline seemed to take place in the two weeks prior to Iowa.

  • Exit polls showed that many voters made up their minds in the last two weeks.

  • Exit polls showed that many voters were concerned with the issue of electability.

I believe that the theory suggested by these facts is that Dean did something in the two weeks prior to the Iowa caucus that caused voters to lose confidence in his electability. In fact, there may have been several things, including his mishandling of a local heckler. However, the most outstanding gaffe was his sound-bite claim that capturing Saddam Hussein had not made America any safer. That gaffe displayed arrogance and indifference to the need to change people's minds, and this indifference upset Iowa's voters.

I actually believe that the opinion that we are no safer with Saddam captured is a defensible position, even though I do not agree with it. However, it is a statement that can only be made in the context of an acknowledgment that many people would disagree.

Suppose that Howard Dean had written an op-ed column, or an essay for TCS, called "Ten Reasons Why We're Not Safer Having Captured Saddam Hussein." He could have made his case, listing all of the terrorist dangers and problems in Iraq that still exist.

I do not believe that many Bush supporters would have been convinced by an op-ed piece of that type. However, a thoughtful essay that attempted to change minds would have been an asset, while the same opinion expressed as a sound bite proved to be a liability.

The sound-bite version of "we are no safer" made Dean sound like a crank who was bitter over the success of President Bush in attaining an achievement in Iraq. It created or reinforced doubts about his electability, even among people who were inclined to agree with Dean's sentiment. A thoughtful, op-ed version would have created a much different impression. He could have come across as logical rather than as temperamental.

No Surprise

For anyone who has read Thomas Sowell's 1995 classic, The Vision of the Anointed, Dean's failure to protect his intellectual flank and Pariser's contempt for "changing people's minds" would come as no surprise. Sowell suggests that the Left sees public policy not as an intellectual debate but as a contest between "the anointed" (those who share the leftist vision) and "the benighted" (their opponents). Of the Left, Sowell writes,

'Those who accept this vision are deemed to be not merely factually correct but morally on a higher plane. Put differently, those who disagree with the prevailing vision are seen as being not merely in error, but in sin. For those who have this vision of the world, the anointed and the benighted do not argue on the same moral plane or play by the same cold rules of logic and evidence. The benighted are to be made "aware," to have their "consciousness raised"...Should the benighted prove recalcitrant, then their "mean-spiritedness" must be fought and the "real reasons" behind their arguments and actions exposed.'


One can see this pattern today among Dean supporters and in Paul Krugman's columns in the New York Times. For the left, there is no need to change their opponents' minds. Instead, they concentrate on rallying their supporters, while exposing their opponents' "real motives."

The Case for Changing People's Minds

I believe, to the contrary of Eli Pariser, that changing people's minds is one of the noblest efforts that one can make. Education, which is certainly a noble cause, serves to change people's minds.

Changing people's minds requires empathy with other people. Just as an entrepreneur must have empathy with customers in order to produce a marketable product, someone who tries to change someone's mind must have empathy with how the other person is thinking in order to take that person on the journey from one point of view to another.

Changing people's minds is very hard work. In 1997, as I was starting to write essays, I heard Robert Metcalfe give a talk, in which he said that he was giving up his regular column for a technology magazine. "One thing I've learned," Metcalfe said, "is that no one ever changes their mind." This is an overstatement. Still, I never expect that the number of minds I will change with any essay that I write is going to go beyond single digits. Nonetheless, the very act of writing to change someone's mind helps to improve one's own thought process and increase one's own rigor.

Most important, attempting to change someone's mind demonstrates respect for that person. It is dehumanizing to people to suggest that there is no need to appeal to their reason. It is insulting to suggest instead that one's hold on truth is so powerful that any disagreement is wicked.

I suspect that in Iowa, many caucus-goers had open minds during the last two weeks. Dean's supporters, acting out the part of the anointed so aptly described by Sowell, were not up to the task of speaking to people with open minds. Neither was Dean. That is why his campaign failed.


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