Mar 02, 2012

Black and White

Peter Drucker and Andrew Breitbart were both in the business of persuading people to act. But the similarities end there.

Breitbart, one of America’s foremost media provocateurs, died this week at the age of 43. A veteran of the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post, Breitbart launched several websites that promoted conservative, or at least anti-left, causes. His team launched stories and sting operations that were credited with, among other things, demolishing the nonprofit ACORN, bruising the National Endowment for the Arts and causing the resignation of now-former Congressman Anthony Weiner.

Breitbart’s means of persuasion were blunt, and his positions were firm, with minimal nuance and a maximum of black and white.

Notably, Drucker took a much different approach to his work. As we’ve noted, no one knew entirely how to peg him politically. A 1960 memo from a Richard Nixon aide described Drucker as a “former left-winger,” and a late 1970s book described him as a “liberal-from-the-right.”

In the late 1930s, when predicting the Hitler-Stalin pact, Drucker recalled that he “immediately became an enemy for the Communists and the fellow travelers.” In 1942, in the Future of Industrial Man, he wrote, “Every liberal movement, it is true, contains the seeds of a totalitarian philosophy—just as every conservative movement contains a tendency to become reactionary.”

Drucker spoke with reverence of Victorian economist Walter Bagehot, in whom he saw a kindred spirit. “Like Bagehot I see as central to society and to civilization the tension between the need for continuity (Bagehot called it ‘the cake of custom,’ I call it civilization) and the need for innovation and change,” Drucker wrote in The Ecological Vision. “Thus, I know what Bagehot meant when he said that he saw himself sometimes as a liberal Conservative and sometimes as a conservative Liberal but never as a ‘conservative Conservative’ or a ‘liberal Liberal.’”

This didn’t mean that Drucker was inconsistent. It did mean that he took a different approach from that of Breitbart in shaping the “cultural narrative.” All of Drucker’s arguments were nuanced, and nearly all of his assertions, especially concerning politics, acknowledged competing priorities and tensions. Whether that made them persuasive is another question—and our question of the day:

When it comes to influencing people, what works best: being relentlessly black and white, or acknowledging the gray? Why?

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