“Remember remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.” – English Nursery Rhyme
If you want to get a point across, or to convince a crowd of something you believe, you need to advance an argument. Don’t just say something and expect people to believe it; really make an argument. What do you believe and why? What facts or evidence supports your assertion? What are the consequences if you’re right/wrong? And what can/should we do about it?
During election season arguments fly fast and furious. It can be hard to keep up; it can be hard to know what/who to believe. But if you listen carefully, you will find that the Republican narrative has made clear that Republicans don’t know what an argument is.
Take some of the following examples (by no means exhaustive!):
- Argument isn’t simple contradiction. If someone asserts that Democratic administrations have made for a healthier American economy saying “No they haven’t” is not an argument.
- Argument is not simply repeating a lie when confronted with the facts. For example, McCain claimed during the debates that Obama was going to raise everybody’s taxes. Obama pointed out that in fact he was going to cut taxes for 95% of Americans, which is factually true. McCain ignored this and repeated his claim. Republicans are still repeating it.
- Argument isn’t evasion; it isn’t changing the subject or refusing to answer the question, or pulling a Palin and saying “I don’t want to talk about that today.”
- Argument is not a unilateral statement or assertion lacking supporting evidence: “The Democrats have ruined the economy.” Where is your supporting evidence? In the same way that “spin” is not news, it is not an argument either, however catchy and easy to remember.
- An argument is not an ad hominem attack, which attacks not the argument itself but the author. Pundits like Limbaugh, Beck and Coulter are infamous for making ad hominem attacks. This is a sure sign that the attacking party recognizes that there is no argument to be made. Democrats are “communists,” “traitors” or “terrorist sympathizers.”
- An argument should be relevant. It should address the topic under discussion. It should provide evidence and the evidence should support the conclusion. Sarah Palin’s claim that Putin flew over Alaskan airspace (whether it is true or not) is irrelevant as it is unlikely she would watch the plane as it soared overhead, or that even if she did, she would somehow glean from it some insight into foreign policy matters.
- The “false dilemma” (either-or fallacy) – a pair of claims of which it is said only one can be true or that there are only two choices – is not an argument. One we hear all the time is that “Either we eliminate government regulation of business or profits suffer.” As has been pointed out by observers, unregulated companies can do untold damage to themselves and to others, even going bankrupt, like Enron. Economics is a complex system; there will seldom if ever be only two choices.
- The “slippery slope” fallacy – the claim that one thing makes another thing inevitable – is not an argument but you see it a lot. This fallacy works well in the politics of fear. For example, the Republican argument from 2003 on was that making peace in Iraq, or taking anything other than a hard-line approach – even talking about less aggressive alternatives – would lead to increased attacks on America. They are still making that claim seven years later despite the absence of such promised attacks.
There is a great deal of intellectual dishonesty in Republican discourse and in the sorts of “arguments” you see raised on public forums. As Obama said before the election, “We’ve become accustomed in our politics to folks just being able to make stuff up.” This is generally true of politics today (left and right both) but increasingly, where the Republicans are concerned, it is difficult to find any sign of honesty at all.
They not only don’t make an argument. They’ve ceased to even try.
Instead they have constructed a mythical America, divorced from reality, provided it with a fake history to support it, and delivered it in catchy sound-bites. But catchy does not equal accurate and backing up a lie with another lie does not magically transform the first lie into truth.
The world doesn’t work that way. The nursery rhyme with what I began this piece may have been used propagandistically to buttress monarchy, but it at least refers to an actual historical event. Republican nursery rhymes do not.
It is important to remember that the internal logic of an argument is completely separate from its truth content. Just because it “sounds right” doesn’t mean it is. This is part of Sarah Palin’s appeal to the Republican base, which is motivated more by emotions than by common sense or reason, let alone an examination of the facts.
“She speaks for us!” they say. Yes, that is because neither of you is thinking.
There are some simple explanations for this. The Republican platform does not support the scientific method; the idea that empirical evidence is relevant is alien to them, that is, evidence acquired from observation, experimentation and testing. The Republicans don’t support science – which is inherently liberal– or even Education.
Perhaps that’s not surprising; science and education upset the status quo that is so dear to conservatives. But that’s another discussion. The simplest explanation is that because the facts do not support their assertions they have to make stuff up, an activity they engage in with great enthusiasm.