This review of Jonathan Haidt's new book The Righteous Mind is worth a read (h/t MMc). In my class we talk a lot about rhetorical technique and how every message has a mix of logos, pathos, and ethos. Universities are logos-centric, but the rest of the world is not. Most people make judgments based on emotion and according to what they "feel" is "right", and what they feel is right is usually shaped by their acculturation, the values they were taught growing up. Reason is overrated, I argue; it's used to justify what people already believe.
Many liberal intellectuals have a hard time understanding this, because the ethos that shapes liberal thinking starts with a bias that assumes tradition--its conventions, values, mores--are oppressive. They must be rejected tout court, and then be readmitted only when they prove themselves worthy according to some reasonable standard. So why not incest between consulting adults? What "reason" is there against it, so long as they abort any children they may conceive?
The bottom line here is that politics is almost always about ethos-centered arguments, not logos-centered ones, and if you want to change people's minds, you need to change the ethos that shapes them. That's what Reagan and Norquist did. They changed the Beltway ethos from one dominated by the New Deal, social democratic ethos to one that is now dominated by a leave-me-alone libertarianism. For a while there I thought that Obama understood his task to reshape the Beltway ethos using his considerable oratorical skills. My chief disappointment with him is that he didn't even try. But whether he or someone else, that is the task.
The 'ethos' that defines a particular group's thinking defines the limits of what is possible. There was never any discussion, for instance, of single-payer, or medicare for all, as an option in the health care reform debate a few years ago, because the Beltway ethos excluded it from any consideration whatsoever. It doesn't matter how reasonable it might be. It is an option that was then unthinkable in the Reagan/Norquist defined Beltway ethos. It would not have been if the Beltway ethos was still defined by the New Deal. Facts and reasonableness have nothing to do with what's possible; ethos does.
And so the task is not about making facts-based or reasonable arguments as liberals are wont to do; it's about making arguments that appeal to the "better angels" that lie dormant in the souls of all Americans with any common sense and common decency. It's there in us because it's a part of the way we were all brought up.