Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How Not To Change Republicans' Minds

Patrick M. Andendall, Stupidparty—Math v. Myth: Unmasking the Destructive Forces Eroding American Democracy

Watch the two big 24-hour partisan news channels sometime. Notice how MSNBC, that grand lefty spectacle, uses data. They’ll hit you with charts, histograms, maps, quotes, statistics, and relevant context like they believe nothing stands between America and liberal triumph but knowledge. Fox, however, uses facts mainly as set dressing. They’re all about moral claims, and incant moralistic language like freedom, family, and flag. Liberals believe they can educate America; conservatives prefer to moralize America.

Thus my problem with Patrick Andendall’s first book. A self-described business conservative and disillusioned Republican, he purposes to reclaim American conservatism from factual ignorance, sublimated bigotry, and fallacious reasoning. Republicans, Andendall claims, have become the Stupidparty, actively hostile to science, hypnotized by faux economics, and trapped on the wrong side of history. A former Republican myself, I support that goal. But his approach appeals mainly to readers who already understand and agree with his conclusions.

Pursuing his goal, Andendall compiles literally thousands of pull quotes, graphs, listicles, images, and citations demonstrating the ever-widening gulf between Stupidparty talking points and externally verifiable fact. Though he provides limited linking prose to connect these citations, he attempts, wherever possible, to let facts speak for themselves. Whether that means quoting Republican leaders lamenting their own party-wide stupidity, or proving how non-partisan stats contradict talking points, or whatever, Andendall provides a veritable smorgasbord of facts.

Andendall doesn’t, however, attempt to put these facts in any meaningful framework. He divides ideas into chapters, putting thematically related facts beside one another, but beyond that, he essentially trusts readers to understand why massive block quotes matter. With neither story nor moral, it’s difficult to make facts make sense. As journalist Stewart Pinkerton writes, “Most people need an expert to filter, prioritize, and context [sic] information. A firehose of information without that is useless.”

This volume does nothing to filter, prioritize, or contextualize. It also does nothing to recognize its audience’s predilections. Humans, pattern-seeking creatures by nature, seek the narrative structure in any argument, which explains why conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, born storytellers by nature. Without that narrative, we flail. Imagine reading the back of a baseball card without any understanding of terminology or statistics. Without some foundation, long factual lists and quotations become equally confusing.

Not that Andendall never attempts such contextualization. His discursion on Mormonism in particular adopts exactly the strong, morally grounded tone that his stated conservative audience readily comprehends. He contrasts Mormon words, particularly those propounded by Mitt Romney, with common Mormon actions, emphasizing those actions, current and historical, which Mormons mightn’t appreciate seeing made public. Here Andendall does exactly what his audience appreciates. Then, having briefly accomplished his goals, he dances back to lengthy listicles again.

Recent developments in behavioral economics, a discipline which merges psychology with real-world consequences, have significant impacts in political discourse. Sasha Issenberg describes how political operators fine-tune their messages, deliver specific talking points to specific audiences, and muster outrage to mobilize voters. If Ted Cruz or Elizabeth Warren sound particularly fiery when addressing the electorate, that’s not coincidental. Modern, highly technocratic political discourse is precisely fine-tuned for maximum impact. Savvy electoral operators leave nothing to chance.

By contrast, Andendall simply unloads massive quantities of information into audiences’ laps. Perhaps he trusts readers, believing us literate and thoughtful enough to understand why his block quotes matter. But political information, true or false, is common as dirt today. From fake Founding Fathers quotes and Robert Reich infographics, to mass mailers from and Americans For Prosperity, we’re drowning in such factoids. Today’s voters need help making meaning, not another squirt from the firehose.

Andendall’s print edition runs nearly 400 pages, though he admits print is an afterthought. He wrote this book to be consumed electronically, and laced it through with links to his original sources. If you carry your smartphone or tablet with you everywhere, this may make this book useful when you’re debating that favorite MSNBC bugaboo, “your uncle who watches Fox News all day.” Use Andendall’s sources to prove you’re serious, and not making anything up.

But for actually persuading committed Stupidparty voters to reject simplistic moralizing arguments and return to conventional fact-based reasoning, time will tell whether Andendall succeeds. I just doubt it. This book reads like notes for a more carefully controlled book Andendall hopes to write later. He’s courteously arranged his notes into a rough outline, but only made salutary efforts at context. Andendall’s heart is in the right place. I just feel his pen is playing catch-up.

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