Trying to persuade the mulish may drive you nuts, but it's possible and essential
There is no persuasion as effective as personal interaction, and liberals - in Turkey, Israel, America and elsewhere - have an underappreciated advantage
It is among the least controversial proposals one can make at gatherings with family and friends: “Let’s not get into politics.” The discourse seems so toxic and the challenges so confounding that debates on the issues can seem only slightly less appealing than showing off vacation photos in polite society.
And that’s a shame, because many countries are experiencing a fascinating existential rupture — a genuine conflict of ideas that goes to the essence of what their society should be. So discourse is essential. persuasion is possible, and in many places a decision about the future looms inevitably.
It is the certainly case in Turkey, where voters will decide in a May 28 runoff if they want more of the authoritarian President Recep Teyep Erdogan. That’s the outcome of this Sunday’s vote in which Erdogan, after 20 years in increasingly centralized power, fell just under 50% of the vote. Every single Turk should be out persuading right now.
But not only Turkey. It is also the case in the United States, where Trumpism will probably be again on the ballot in 2024. It is the case in France, where it looks like Marine Le Pen — a classic European authoritarian-in-waiting — is polling better than centrist President Emanuel Macron in the wake of the current wave of unrest sparked by a plan to slightly raise the pension age (and the riots are, tellingly, benefitting the anti-capitalist far right — not the communist left).
It was until recently the case in Ukraine, where there was a real debate over whether whether the country should attach itself to Russia ( which has never known a day of good government, but knows how to project power and pride) or the European Union (which in the post-war period has stood for basically the opposite). The past year’s events have, of course, persuaded the Ukrainians.
Politics are at a boil the world over because of concurrent dislocations driven by tech disruption, social media, globalization, immigration and climate change.
In the case of Turkey and Israel, there is a fault-line of a more toxic caliber still, because religion is involved.
In Turkey Erdogan has carried out a mild Islamization, but still a damaging one, for example opposing the idea of interest with disastrous results for his plummeting currency and the economy’s price stability.
The fault-lines in the Holy Land, meanwhile, are not just about the role of the Jewish religion; they also pit Israelis and Palestinians against one another, as well as Jews of European and Middle Eastern origin. But all of that complexity has realigned and crystallized in recent years into something strangely more manageable and due to the uproar over the government’s proposed judicial overhaul, no longer escapable.
There are those in Israel who would tear apart its liberal democracy. Some are driven by religion; they basically want theocracy. Some are driven by a sense that the conflict with the Arabs cannot be papered over by land deals or compromises and that liberal democracy is ill-suited for so visceral a conflict; they basically want autocracy. They’re united in the right-religious bloc headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, which enjoys a small majority in the Knesset due to opposition splits in the November 2022 election.
The government’s current exertions to neuter the courts are the natural projection of this alliance. If successful they would carry a huge cost, in outflows of capital and mass emigration, yielding a country that’s poorer, more religious and authoritarian.
Some of the liberals in Israel and elsewhere grow desperate, but I still think there is value is persuasive political dialogue. That means cultivating a compassionate-minded space where people with divergent views can both actively listen and be heard.
There is a notion we live in a mulish era when persuasion no longer works. This view reduces elections to a census, with the outcome determined by which tribe turns out most. The logic drives everyone to extremes to animate their base, and accommodation suffers.
But liberals actually have the advantage when it comes to persuasion. Why?
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