The Inconsistency of Political Arguments

Yesterday I sat a table with a number of people that I care about deeply. For a while we discussed non controversial topics such as sports and the weather. We spoke calmly and cordially to one another. It was actually quite pleasant. There is a reason why sports and weather are default conversation topics. Everybody is affected by the weather and all people in living in the same city take at least a small interest in the local sports team. That all changed when my mother, whom I realized is actually a quite skillful rabble rouser, started talking about politics.

Politics is an issue that all people hope to avoid when attending a polite dinner party. There is nothing more certain to cause seemingly civil people to freak out. So and so is moron! Such and such is a scumbag! If you think that than you must be an idiot like that other guy!

In all fairness, this particular crowd didn’t get as rambunctious as some others that I’ve seen. However, I did notice that these people who entirely rational in all other respects, as far as I can tell at least, turn completely irrational when it comes to politics. If a guy belongs to one party they hate him. If the exact same guy we to change parties but keep all of his policies the same, they’d love him.

Most everybody at the table were older business people, most with military backgrounds. They all hate Obama. Many of them liked Newt Gingrich. Their main reasons for liking Newt: he’s a republican and he can beat Obama. It surprised me that such smart people could reason in such a superficial manner.

This was especially surprising given that one of the attendees gave a smart and moving account of the philosophy of our founders at the beginning of the discussion. He explain that “Our government was supposed to a government of the citizens. The congress was to be elected by local people. Our founders didn’t envision a corrupt aristocracy that would pass laws to enrich themselves and the lobbyists. The government was to be by the people and for the people. Congress is now completely corrupt.” We all nodded in agreement.

Not ten minutes later, most of these people were trying to convince me that Newt Gingrich would be a good presidential candidate. I reminded them that Newt was one of the more corrupt politicians to ever walk the planet. He took money from the big mortgage companies and legislated on their behalf. He did the same for big pharmaceutical companies. Their response, literally, was: So What? All politicians are corrupt. At least this guy is on our side.

I consider that dinner a teaching moment. It is unrealistic to expect consistency from people when it comes to politics. The most important issue to the vast majority of people is what party a person belongs to. All reason and logic will be abandoned and most will fall back on the argument that a candidate is one of ours and thats enoguh.

Therefore, if one is to make any headway in a political discussion it is of the utmost importance to avoid naming names. Once the issue of which candidate is the best comes into play, reasonableness will soon make its exit. It much more effective to focus on ideas than on people. Likewise, it is much more effective to stress general principles rather than specific policies.

When speaking to Democrats, don’t talk about how bad Obama is. It is a much better tactic to stress the importance of civil liberties, how tragic it is when innocent people get killed by in drone attacks, how awful torture is, how terrible it is that big banks buy so many politicians, etc. Obama is on the wrong side of all of these issues. However, if you mention Obama’s name in connection with any specific wrongs, you’ll get nowhere. Defenses we’ll go up and you’ll be told that he’s good because he belongs to the Democratic Party. You’re better off trusting that if you can drive home these points and obtain agreement on them, a rational person will put two and two together at some point in the future.

The same strategy applies to Republicans. Obtain agreement on the issues of limited government, free markets, religious freedom, the founders, etc. It’s trickier with Republicans, of course, because many of their professed beliefs stray so far from the policies that they support. How you can be for a small government but a huge military is perplexing. Isn’t the military part of the government? On the one hand they’re for the constitution which calls for the due process of law and protects against illegal search and seizure while on the other hand they prefer secret detainment camps and the spying on citizens. The most important thing when dealing with Republicans is to stick to the ideas involved and not bring specific people and laws into the conversation. Once they hear the name of a politician that they like or of a law that they have an emotional attachment to, they’ll shut down. If you can get a Republican to agree that the military runs on taxes and if you want to cut taxes you need to cut military spending, you’ve one an enormous victory even if they’re still plan to vote for Newt.

Indeed, these are the tactics that I used and I had success. In the end we all agreed that when any politician, not specific ones, take money from companies and then subsequently legislate on their behalf, it should be condemned. Surprisingly, I even got one of them to agree that bringing home troops from around the world isn’t necessarily an “isolationist”. It helped that he’s a world traveler. I asked him is he feels isolated from the rest of the world? He said no, he travels all over the place. I asked him if he’d stop traveling if we brought the troops home. He said that he wouldn’t. Maybe it it wouldn’t isolate us from the world after all.

Don’t expect logical consistency in any political discussions. Don’t name names or specific laws. Get agreement on ideas. Trust that smart people will come around eventually.



One Response to The Inconsistency of Political Arguments

  1. Your post is so true! Americans are so divided down party lines that everyone has stopped thinking about what is best for the future and instead focus only on beating the other party and winning elections. I wrote an article on my blog about this “cheerleading mentality” as I like to call it. I think you might enjoy it! Here’s the link:

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