The public debate sideshow
“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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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.