A response to Mark Lilla’s “The President and the Passions” in the December 19 The New York Times Magazine
Mark Lilla complains that President Obama is too rational for our country. We are moved by appeals to the passions, Lilla argues, not by good reasons. As a professor of humanities, Lilla could have mentioned what many consider the classic of public discourse, Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Aristotle believed that public speakers should strike a balance between reason, character, and emotion.
Instead of this balance, Lilla’s proposal seems closer to the suggestions of psycholinguistics: find those words that will compel people to become attached to your cause. What is missing here is a normative understanding of public discourse.
We are obviously moved more by our emotions than by reason. That “emotions” “move” people should not surprise us. Public reasoning, however, is about more than moving audiences. It is also about creating a particular type of audience: a community of citizens. Rational arguments may be “weaker” than emotional appeals, but that does not mean they are of less value in public discourse. The way we talk to each other not only involves the means of persuasion; it also involves the creation of ourselves. We only become good citizens by engaging in good civic conversations. If we have a president who focuses on good reasons for policy decisions, why not see that as a model for public deliberation?