Thursday, November 20, 2008

Nate Silver appears to have pegged why conservatism has failed. It's talk radio.

Nate Silver has reviewed the transcript of his interview with John Ziegler and discovered why Ziegler was so angry, frustrated and unpersuasive.
There are a certain segment of conservatives who literally cannot believe that anybody would see the world differently than the way they do. They have not just forgotten how to persuade; they have forgotten about the necessity of persuasion.

>John Ziegler is a shining example of such a conservative. During my interview with him, Ziegler made absolutely no effort to persuade me about the veracity of any of his viewpoints. He simply asserted them -- and then became frustrated, paranoid, or vulgar when I rebutted them.

I didn't quite get how someone like Ziegler, who is usually fairly poised, who solicited me to interview him, who has years of experience in the media, could so completely lose his cool. This was until last night, when I read David Foster Wallace's profile of him, conducted in 2005 when Ziegler was hosting a fairly successful talk radio program in Los Angeles.
Ziegler is a talk radio host, and apparently quite good at it. What Nate Silver has done is observe the points in his interview with Ziegler where Ziegler flipped out and recognized that Ziegler was being completely unpersuasive. But what caused that unpersuasiveness?

Nate suggests it is because of the inherent unique characteristics of talk radio itself.
To understand Ziegler, you have to understand that he's a radio guy. And you have to understand that radio is a very strange medium. As Wallace writes:
Hosting talk radio is an exotic, high-pressure gig that not many people are fit for, and being truly good at it requires skills so specialized that many of them don't have names.

To appreciate these skills and some of the difficulties involved, you might wish to do an experiment. Try sitting alone in a room with a clock, turning on a tape recorder, and starting to speak into it. Speak about anything you want—with the proviso that your topic, and your opinions on it, must be of interest to some group of strangers who you imagine will be listening to the tape. Naturally, in order to be even minimally interesting, your remarks should be intelligible and their reasoning sequential—a listener will have to be able to follow the logic of what you're saying—which means that you will have to know enough about your topic to organize your statements in a coherent way. (But you cannot do much of this organizing beforehand; it has to occur at the same time you're speaking.) Plus, ideally, what you're saying should be not just comprehensible and interesting but compelling, stimulating, which means that your remarks have to provoke and sustain some kind of emotional reaction in the listeners, which in turn will require you to construct some kind of identifiable persona for yourself—your comments will need to strike the listener as coming from an actual human being, someone with a real personality and real feelings about whatever it is you're discussing. And it gets even trickier: You're trying to communicate in real time with someone you cannot see or hear responses from; and though you're communicating in speech, your remarks cannot have any of the fragmentary, repetitive, garbled qualities of real interhuman speech, or speech's ticcy unconscious "umm"s or "you know"s, or false starts or stutters or long pauses while you try to think of how to phrase what you want to say next. You're also, of course, denied the physical inflections that are so much a part of spoken English—the facial expressions, changes in posture, and symphony of little gestures that accompany and buttress real talking. Everything unspoken about you, your topic, and how you feel about it has to be conveyed through pitch, volume, tone, and pacing. The pacing is especially important: it can't be too slow, since that's low-energy and dull, but it can't be too rushed or it will sound like babbling.
Not to reduce Wallace's fine prose to a catch phrase, but the distinguishing feature of radio is that it exists in a sort of perpetual amnesiac state. In a book, you can go back and read the previous page; on the internet, you can press the 'back' button on the browser. In radio, there is no rewind: everything exists in that moment and that moment only.

Moreover, almost uniquely to radio, most of the audience is not even paying attention to you, because most people listen to radio when they're in the process of doing something else. (If they weren't doing something else, they'd be watching TV).
So to sustain the audiences' attention you must stimulate them. Stimulation is not persuasion.
Invariably, the times when Ziegler became really, really angry with me during the interview was when I was not permitting him to be stimulating, but instead asking him specific, banal questions that required specific, banal answers. Those questions would have made for terrible radio! And Ziegler had no idea how to answer them.

Stimulation, however, is somewhat the opposite of persuasion. You're not going to persuade someone of something when you're (literally, in Ziegler's case) yelling in their ear.
So Republicans have adopted the methods of talk radio and have forgotten how to persuade an audience. They have even forgotten the need to persuade them.

Nate also presents examples from the McCain campaign that show his campaign was all about stimulating voters rather than persuading them.

I find Silver's hypothesis very compelling. It explains why I listen to National Public Radio instead of talk radio. I like persuasive discussions, and strongly dislike efforts to simply stimulate me.

I have no doubt that conservatives will find this argument extremely unpersuasive, but that will be because they will feel attacked by it. But I'll be looking for either confirmation or disconfirmation, in a normal scientific method approach.

But Nate's hypothesis also explains why so many conservatives are anti-science. Science attempts to persuade and rejects stimulation. That will make it rather boring to someone searching for stimulation.

I was directed towards this idea by Andrew Sabl at The Reality Based Community. Andrew's opinion is "His [Silver's} latest post is spot-on in suggesting that conservatives have forgotten the art of persuasion by burrowing too deep into the habits of talk radio."

Consider this idea in conjunction with Digby's discussion of the two tribes of America. Digby's discussion provides a background in American political history, and Silver's hypothesis explains many current conservative political tactics.

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