The pub­lic de­bate sideshow

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Krista Kafer

“The best lack all con­vic­tion, while the worst/ are full of pas­sion­ate in­ten­sity.” Amer­i­can elec­tions guar­an­tee that Yeats’ near-cen­tury old poem re­mains ev­er­green.

There is noth­ing new about hurl­ing insults at one’s political op­po­nents. But this blood­let­ting is no longer the sideshow to rea­soned de­bate— it has be­come the main at­trac­tion.

Last week, some­one us­ing the Dou­glas County teach­ers union Twit­ter ac­count posted dur­ing a school board meet­ing that a teacher looked like a “pe­nis” and then called him a deroga­tory name. The ac­tual sub­stance of the board meet­ing, how­ever, did not get re­ported.

(Union of­fi­cials, in­ci­den­tally, claim the ac­count was hacked.)

Political rhetoric has de­te­ri­o­rated through a kind of lurid ver­bal dia­lec­tic: Can­di­date A insults can­di­date B, can­di­date B coun­ter­punches, and a new low in rhetoric is achieved. The cy­cle be­gins again, only louder.

And yet it isn’t just the ju­nior high-style “Look at that face! Would any­one vote for that?” kind of in­vec­tive that most de­bases democ­racy; it’s the bet­ter-cloaked fal­la­cies that do greater in­jury be­cause they de­ceive vot­ers.

It is time for the best to gain some con­vic­tion and say “no more” to the de­base­ment of our elec­tions. We must hold can­di­dates and elected of­fi­cials ac­count­able for what they say. Keep an eye out for th­ese:

• The straw man ar­gu­ment mis­char­ac­ter­izes an op­po­nent’s ar­gu­ment so as to eas­ily de­feat it. Chelsea Clin­ton re­cently crit­i­cized Sen. Bernie San­ders for “want[ing] to dis­man­tle Oba­macare, dis­man­tle the CHIP pro­gram, dis­man­tleMedi­care and pri­vate in­sur­ance,” and praised her mother’s poli­cies as a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive. When she omit­ted that San­ders wants to re­place th­ese pro­grams with a na­tion­al­ized health care plan, she made straw of his ar­gu­ment.

• The false dilemma fal­lacy frames choices as strictly bi­nary; you’re for us or against us. When Pres­i­dent Obama said last year, “The choicewe face is ul­ti­mately be­tween diplo­macy” (by­which he meant the Iran deal) “and some form ofwar,” he re­duced all pos­si­ble choices to two and painted the deal’s op­po­nents aswar­mon­gers. Op­po­nents did not­want­war; they wanted a stronger deal.

• The ad hominem ar­guer at­tacks the per­son rather than the sub­stance of his ar­gu­ment, such as when Sen. Rand Paul jabbed Chris Christie dur­ing a re­cent pri­mary de­bate: “I don’t trust Pres­i­dent Obama with our records. I knowyou gave him a big hug, and if youwant to give him a big hug again, go right ahead.”

Data pri­va­cy­was the is­sue, not post-hur­ri­cane comity. Harder to rec­og­nize is the ad hominem tu quoque. When Sen. Marco Ru­bio slammed Sen. Ted Cruz for crit­i­ciz­ingNewYork val­ueswhile still fundrais­ing in the state, he used this type of false rea­son­ing. The ex­is­tence ofNewYork val­ues and their na­ture can be de­bated. Cruz’s fundrais­ing in the state is ir­rel­e­vant to the ar­gu­ment.

• The ad pop­u­lum fal­lacy as­serts that be­cause many peo­ple be­lieve some­thing, it must be true. Dur­ing one of the pri­mary de­bates, Don­ald Trump de­fended his bank­rupt­cies by as­sert­ing that “peo­ple are very, very im­pressed with what I’ve done, the busi­ness peo­ple.” That’s not a de­fense; that’s an un­sub­stan­ti­ated as­ser­tion of pop­u­lar­ity.

Un­for­tu­nately, fal­la­cies look like log­i­cal ar­gu­ments. Along with ex­ag­ger­a­tions, men­da­cious insinuations, out­right lies and eva­sive­ness, fal­la­cies dis­tort pub­lic di­a­logue and neg­a­tively im­pact the out­come of elec­tions. Un­less the pub­lic de­mands bet­ter, the worst will win. Krista Kafer ( is co-host of “Kel­ley and Kafer” air­ing 1 to 4 p.m on 710 KNUS and a pro­fes­sor of com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Colorado Chris­tian Univer­sity.

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