As is frequently pointed out, Republicans have a huge advantage, communications-wise, over Democrats. This is due in no small part to their ideological control over AM radio, which serves as a primary source of news and opinion for millions of Americans. But it also has to do with the argumentative style they have developed over the past few years, a style that has since filtered down to various pundits, talk show hosts and that annoying kid in your econ class. When you listen to the GOP’s big guns – people like Sean Hannity who attract legions of adoring fans – you will find that they use the same tactics over and over. These tactics, needless to say, have little to do with the argument at hand.
I’m going to list a few of the most popular such conversational tools. Next time you’re arguing with a conservative, see how many you can spot him or her using. In no way am I saying that every conservative engages in unfair tactics when arguing; certainly there are intellectually honest conservatives who genuinely care about ideas and debate. But when you watch the mainstream representatives of the conservative movement, you can’t help but notice them use these cheap tricks.
Ad hominem ad infinitum – This one’s really annoying. An ad hominem attack is one that discusses not the topic at hand, but rather attacks the speaker or an entire class of people he belongs to (ad hominem means “to the man”). So if I’m arguing with a Diag activist wearing a Che Guevara shirt over some aspect of globalization, and I respond to one of his points by saying, “Well, of course you’d say that. You’re wearing a Che shirt, and anyone who wears a Che shirt clearly doesn’t know anything about politics,” then I have used this technique. Notice that what I’m saying has nothing to do with the argument over globalization – instead I’m taking the easy way out by attacking a broad class of people.
It’s a sneaky trick. Following the 2003 Massachusetts court decision that allowed gay marriage in Massachusetts, Bill O’Reilly responded with what I consider an awe-inspiring example: “Secularists want few judgments made about personal behavior. Traditionalists believe judgments are necessary in a disciplined society.” This had nothing to do with the issue of gay marriage itself, the merits or flaws of which O’Reilly was not addressing; instead, in an attempt to skirt the actual issue, he issued a broad, ultimately ludicrous attack on secular people in general.
The terrorists care what you think – If my first example is annoying, then this one is downright insidious. We have been told in recent years that certain dissenting opinions aren’t just wrong – they’re helpful to our enemy. This charge has come at every important moment since Sept. 11. First those who questioned the Patriot Act were aiding our enemies, then those opposed to invading Iraq were aiding our enemies. These days, it’s those who question the administration’s strategy in Iraq who are pouring cocoa for Osama bin Laden.
This logic implies a very curious worldview on the part of certain Republicans – one in which Baathist insurgents are motivated not by a desire to return to power in Iraq, but rather by President Bush’s falling approval ratings; one in which the real cure to Al Qaeda’s apocalyptic vision of a unified Islamic state is not effective counterterrorism measures, but rather unfailing agreement with Bush. It just doesn’t make much sense.
It’s what the people want– Time to roll out the opportunistic populism. When Republicans are arguing for a position that can’t be rationally defended, this is their favorite tactic. Because when we focus on what the people want – not on what’s the best, most just or fairest solution – anything can make sense. Bush’s innermost strategic circle is masterful at this. Though they actively fight the will of the people in certain cases (physician-assisted suicide in Oregon, medical marijuana in California), when it comes to something like gay marriage, they will constantly refer to tradition, to the will of the public.
So the next time you get into a political argument with a conservative (or a liberal, for that matter), keep him on point – name-calling, attacks on patriotism or the point of view of the majority do not constitute a good argument. A defensible position should not have to rely on such cheap rhetorical tricks.
Singal can be reached at email@example.com.