This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 print issue of the Swarthmore Independent.
By Philip Decker
One of the most banal pronouncements in contemporary political discourse is the need for a “conversation.” We are told that we need a “conversation” about immigration, economics, race, gun control, and innumerable other issues. Similarly tiresome is the critique of “polarization” and “excessive partisanship,” by which it is usually meant that the two parties disagree on major policy questions and are unlikely to change their positions without exacting concessions in return. It is often the case that those who call for “conversations” also seek complete surrender from their opponents. The word “conversation” might be better termed “monologue”—a declamation with little regard for the response. If we are to break free of political gridlock, we must resolve this contradiction.
Part of the political game has always been to pretend to make concessions, and to position the opposing party as “extreme” because it does not offer concessions of its own. Although this is a dishonest approach to politics, it is attractive because it bestows on the user a feeling of intellectual or moral superiority without the cumbersome task of facing an opponent’s argument. Politicians mold a narrative for voters in which they are tireless negotiators who make reasonable overtures to the other side, only to be rebuked by “obstructionists,” “radicals” and, naturally, “extremists.” It is a specific tactic to bill oneself as diplomatic by calling for a conversation, then demanding that the other side accept in full one’s own worldview, knowing well that it will not. Those who behave this way are not demonstrating ideological purity but intransigence. They engage the weakest expressions of their opponents’ positions—sometimes straying from any reference to those positions at all—and in so doing create a line of straw men to be shot at and ridiculed. These politicians regress from logic into a vituperative stalemate, reciting self-aggrandizing platitudes instead of argument. In essence, our political system is plagued by intellectual laziness.
The individual politician sees many advantages in the straw man technique. Straw men offer great rhetorical material; they are usually realistic enough to pass as an actual stance but exaggerated enough to be mocked. If he or she is a skilled peddler, the politician can convince a low-information voter that the other side’s ideas consist of straw men. Effective as such posturing is for people seeking election or reelection, it is a grossly parasitic and unproductive feature of our body politic. Legitimate debates are subsumed to finger-pointing and self-righteous accusation, sophisticated views to a set of crude caricatures, and much-championed “conversations” to ideological catfights.
There are many examples to choose from, but the most vivid ones relate to President Obama’s various statements on the campaign trail. The futility of the straw man approach to politics will be amply displayed.
In 2011, the president proposed a set of new environmental regulations and had recently overseen the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans objected to regulations on the grounds that a larger regulatory state would stifle growth and limit the expansion of business in an already poor economy. They protested the Affordable Care Act on the grounds that the law would cause millions to lose their health insurance and would raise premiums, among other concerns (in hindsight, we know that these predictions about the health law ultimately came true).
Yet President Obama seldom contested the conservative counter-arguments in any meaningful way. In October 2011, he made the following remark at a campaign event: “My plan says we’re going to put teachers back in the classroom, construction workers back to work rebuilding America, rebuilding our schools. That’s my plan. Then you’ve got their [Republican] plan, which is, let’s have dirtier air, dirtier water, less people with health insurance. So far at least, I feel better about my plan.” The president twisted sensible objections to his ideas—to the extent that he even noticed them at all—into evidence of the right’s callousness, punching into empty air. He accomplished nothing but producing a vitriolic sound bite.
The right is not exempt from this kind of behavior either. During his campaign for reelection, President Obama frequently discussed the role of government investment in facilitating economic expansion. He argued that the use of public funds to build or improve roads, bridges, and other works allows private business to expand. This point is neither controversial nor new: it was the position of Henry Clay in the early nineteenth century, who advocated for “internal improvements,” or publicly funded infrastructure projects to stimulate agricultural markets.
Yet President Obama’s infelicitous phrase from July 2012, “You didn’t build that,” which in context referred to the fact that private businesses do not build public infrastructure, was swiftly converted into a straw man. Republicans seized on the sentence and billed it as a proclamation that individual entrepreneurs owe their entire success to government. While I agree wholeheartedly with Republican objections to President Obama’s policies, there is no long-term benefit in distorting a badly-worded statement to confirm accusations. It panders to the conservative base and makes for a few decent campaign ads, but all it does in the greater scheme of American politics is perpetuate intellectual lethargy. Instead of providing a cogent argument for why infrastructure spending is an inferior stimulant to tax cuts or loosening of regulation, Republicans took the easy route and turned a reasonable assertion into an emblem of Obama’s affinity for big government. A poor choice indeed—there is other, better proof for this.
The reasons for the use of this political tactic are understandable. It requires self-discipline and courage to properly engage an opponent’s argument, because one runs the risk of being outmatched. Losing debates is bad publicity; having an ideology dissected is even worse publicity. It is not in the interest of politicians’ careers to step on stage and be exposed as wrong. It is much simpler to slip into an ideological echo-chamber.
But—as we have seen over the past years—this is the road to stagnation and decline. Sociopolitical blindness has existed as long as there have been politics, but what distinguishes our era from others in recent history is that few prominent figures in government have resisted the temptation that lies in the straw man. Economic and social reform rarely occurs when both sides’ arguments are skirted, changed, or flatly ignored. If we are to have an honest “conversation” in this country, we must move past the impulse to view our respective ideologies as inviolable absolutes. It is hard, but it has been done before and can be done again.
There is nothing wrong with having a philosophy or specific worldview. But to maintain a healthy political culture, these must be presented clearly and must be able to withstand disagreeable scrutiny. If you believe something deeply, you should be able to defend it.