Columns Can Change Political Views

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RALEIGH — I have written a syndicated column on politics and public policy for North Carolina newspapers since 1986. Have I influenced how readers think about the issues I discuss? I certainly hope so, at least to some extent.

But there are plenty of smart people, scholars of public opinion and political behavior, who question whether editorials, columns, and op-eds matter. Some argue that political attitudes are so deeply felt, so bound up with partisan affiliation and personal experience, that they rarely change in response to what people read. This is especially true, the argument goes, for the political insiders who wield a disproportionate influence on policy outcomes.

Other skeptics argue something like the reverse: that what may look like fixed ideological attitudes are nothing more than fleeting symbols of group affinity, blind allegiance to a charismatic leader, or how poll questions are worded. To the extent opinion writing changes minds, it rarely sticks. It doesn’t transform thoughts or actions in the long run, they contend.

As with most questions of human behavior, the evidence here is mixed. Partisan preference (as distinct from party membership) is a powerful force that limits how much people are willing to stray from their team’s consensus. Lots of people do “follow the crowd” when it comes to political attitudes, conforming their views on issues beyond their personal experience to those of their leaders or groups.

But there is also good evidence for the proposition that ideas matter — that powerful messages conveyed in compelling ways can change the course of political debates, movements, and elections. For example, the bitter conflicts of the 20th century between rival totalitarian ideologies are difficult to explain without recourse to ideas. Millions of people were willing to fight and die for causes that originated in the written word of persuasive madmen such as Marx, Lenin, Mussolini, and Hitler.

It works for benign ideas, too, and for philosophical conflicts with less at stake. A fascinating study published last year in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science used online surveys to gauge the political views of respondents before and after they read op-eds published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Newsweek. In samples of both general readers and political “elites,” those who read an op-ed became more favorably disposed to its thesis than those who did not, although the effect was weaker for political insiders (as might be expected).

Using reasonable estimates of the number of readers exposed to these op-eds in the “real world,” rather than within the confines of the study, the authors calculated the cost-per-mind-changed ranged from 50 cents to three dollars — which compares favorably with other means of political communication such as buying ads or staging events.

Even if the skeptics are right to cast doubt on the persuasion effect, opinion pieces can serve other rhetorical goals. If the writer is a trusted political or intellectual leader, readers may shift their views based on the byline rather than the content. A strongly argued op-ed may also convince political actors who disagree with the writer that they might lose the debate, pushing them towards compromise.

I have loved newspapers ever since I started reading them in the 1970s. I believe in their continued relevance as a critical source of news, analysis, and commentary, whether readers encounter them in print or online. I have considered it a privilege to write a regular column for North Carolina papers, and to contribute occasionally to national ones. And I consider it an opportunity not just to express myself but to inform, challenge, provoke, and, yes, persuade readers to see things as I do.

It’s a two-way street, of course. While my core philosophy has remained the same for more than three decades, my views have shifted on some issues in response to writing, responding to critics, and reading editorial content from other writers.

Today, I had a more limited goal: to persuade you to keep reading editorial pages and opinion sections. Did I succeed?

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