Will Wisconsin Yield to Gorgias’ “Fine Art”?

By Joseph W.H. Lough

By all estimates, Scott Walker’s campaign to defeat efforts by voters to recall him will cost over $50M, much of which came from anti-labor groups and individuals outside Wisconsin. So, why did Walker’s campaign need to spend so much money?

Surely not in order to counter the sums spent by Scott Walker’s opponent: Tom Barrett, the candidate favored by organized labor, raised only $3.9M. Even after including independent expenditures from Barrett-supporters such as the National Education Association and Service Employees International, that only brings Barrett’s total up to $10M, barely a fifth of Walker’s total war chest.

Walker needed that edge to practice what I call Gorgias’ “fine art.” For those of you not familiar with Gorgias, Gorgias was the fictional speech-writer and public orator featured in Plato’s early dialogue by the same name. Plato based his characterization of Gorgias on the Greek leader Pericles. In Plato’s tragicomic dialogue, Gorgias boasts to Socrates that his art is the most desirable of all arts because he can teach any individual how to convince others to agree with that individual.

SOCRATES: You said just now that even on matters of health the orator will be more
convincing than the doctor.
GORGIAS: Before a mass audience—yes, I did.
SOCRATES: A mass audience means an ignorant audience, doesn’t it? He won’t be
more convincing than the doctor before experts, I presume.

SOCRATES: And the non-doctor, presumably, is ignorant of what the doctor knows?
GORGIAS: Obviously.
SOCRATES: So when the orator is more convincing than the doctor, what happens is that an ignorant person is more convincing than the expert before an equally ignorant audience. Is this what happens?
GORGIAS: This is what happens in that case, no doubt.

Every independent assessment of Walker’s claims during the campaign has concluded that he is . . . well . . . lying. Rather than producing jobs and enhancing economic growth, Walker’s policies have killed jobs and killed growth. But, this is the brilliance of Gorgias’ “fine art.” So long as Walker can plaster with air waves and television signal with lies to the contrary, Gorgias suggests that the “ignorant person”—that would be Walker—“is more convincing than the expert”—that would be the non-partisan, independent, research groups—“before an equally ignorant audience”—that would be the individuals who believe his campaign ads.

Here is the good news: Wisconsin voters are so smart that, without a five-to-one campaign spending margin, there is absolutely no way in hell that Walker would win the recall. How smart are Wisconsin voters? Well, in order to make Gorgias’ fine art work in Wisconsin, Governor Walker needs to spend $5M for every $1M spent by his opponents. That’s how smart.

But, here’s the bad news: it may well be that that’s how much it costs for smart people to believe a lie. As I write, all of the polls suggest that Walker will just eek out a victory. Which would be a tragedy.

And here’s the silver lining: absent the economic advantage Walker and his deep-pocket 1% backers, such as the Koch brothers, Wisconsin and (in fact) the rest of the United States might be quite solidly on the far left of the political spectrum.

Now that’s something to think about.

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