The Republicans Are Failing to Make an Argument

Beck, Palin and Limbaugh

Remember remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.” – English Nursery Rhyme

If you want to get a point across, or to convince a crowd of something you believe, you need to advance an argument. Don’t just say something and expect people to believe it; really make an argument. What do you believe and why? What facts or evidence supports your assertion? What are the consequences if you’re right/wrong? And what can/should we do about it?

During election season arguments fly fast and furious. It can be hard to keep up; it can be hard to know what/who to believe. But if you listen carefully, you will find that the Republican narrative has made clear that Republicans don’t know what an argument is.

Take some of the following examples (by no means exhaustive!):

  • Argument isn’t simple contradiction. If someone asserts that Democratic administrations have made for a healthier American economy saying “No they haven’t” is not an argument.
  • Argument is not simply repeating a lie when confronted with the facts. For example, McCain claimed during the debates that Obama was going to raise everybody’s taxes. Obama pointed out that in fact he was going to cut taxes for 95% of Americans, which is factually true. McCain ignored this and repeated his claim. Republicans are still repeating it.
  • Argument isn’t evasion; it isn’t changing the subject or refusing to answer the question, or pulling a Palin and saying “I don’t want to talk about that today.”
  • Argument is not a unilateral statement or assertion lacking supporting evidence: “The Democrats have ruined the economy.” Where is your supporting evidence? In the same way that “spin” is not news, it is not an argument either, however catchy and easy to remember.
  • An argument is not an ad hominem attack, which attacks not the argument itself but the author. Pundits like Limbaugh, Beck and Coulter are infamous for making ad hominem attacks. This is a sure sign that the attacking party recognizes that there is no argument to be made. Democrats are “communists,” “traitors” or “terrorist sympathizers.”
  • An argument should be relevant. It should address the topic under discussion. It should provide evidence and the evidence should support the conclusion. Sarah Palin’s claim that Putin flew over Alaskan airspace (whether it is true or not) is irrelevant as it is unlikely she would watch the plane as it soared overhead, or that even if she did, she would somehow glean from it some insight into foreign policy matters.
  • The “false dilemma” (either-or fallacy) – a pair of claims of which it is said only one can be true or that there are only two choices – is not an argument. One we hear all the time is that “Either we eliminate government regulation of business or profits suffer.” As has been pointed out by observers, unregulated companies can do untold damage to themselves and to others, even going bankrupt, like Enron. Economics is a complex system; there will seldom if ever be only two choices.
  • The “slippery slope” fallacy – the claim that one thing makes another thing inevitable – is not an argument but you see it a lot. This fallacy works well in the politics of fear. For example, the Republican argument from 2003 on was that making peace in Iraq, or taking anything other than a hard-line approach – even talking about less aggressive alternatives – would lead to increased attacks on America. They are still making that claim seven years later despite the absence of such promised attacks.

There is a great deal of intellectual dishonesty in Republican discourse and in the sorts of “arguments” you see raised on public forums. As Obama said before the election, “We’ve become accustomed in our politics to folks just being able to make stuff up.” This is generally true of politics today (left and right both) but increasingly, where the Republicans are concerned, it is difficult to find any sign of honesty at all.

They not only don’t make an argument. They’ve ceased to even try.

Instead they have constructed a mythical America, divorced from reality, provided it with a fake history to support it, and delivered it in catchy sound-bites. But catchy does not equal accurate and backing up a lie with another lie does not magically transform the first lie into truth.

The world doesn’t work that way. The nursery rhyme with what I began this piece may have been used propagandistically to buttress monarchy, but it at least refers to an actual historical event. Republican nursery rhymes do not.

It is important to remember that the internal logic of an argument is completely separate from its truth content. Just because it “sounds right” doesn’t mean it is. This is part of Sarah Palin’s appeal to the Republican base, which is motivated more by emotions than by common sense or reason, let alone an examination of the facts.

“She speaks for us!” they say. Yes, that is because neither of you is thinking.

There are some simple explanations for this. The Republican platform does not support the scientific method; the idea that empirical evidence is relevant is alien to them, that is, evidence acquired from observation, experimentation and testing. The Republicans don’t support science – which is inherently liberal– or even Education.

Perhaps that’s not surprising; science and education upset the status quo that is so dear to conservatives. But that’s another discussion. The simplest explanation is that because the facts do not support their assertions they have to make stuff up, an activity they engage in with great enthusiasm.

17 Replies to “The Republicans Are Failing to Make an Argument”

  1. They remain hung up on their ideology at the expense of actual people, because they are too stubborn and inflexible to admit that the ideology doesn’t work. And because they are only interested in the short-term goal of regaining dominance, they will say and do anything toward that end. That kind of mindset also makes them horrible at governing, and some Democrat often has to come behind them to clean up the messes they make. Something is horribly wrong with people who keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result, because they are obviously divorced from reality. It seems that particularly since Obama got elected, they have abandoned all common sense and perspective. They can’t give a rational argument because their ideology is irrational in the first place.

  2. the method that people like Rush Limbaugh and others use is to simply throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. Rush Limbaugh and the others do not forward any type of arguments as you say, it’s just what they say that matters. If you walk into a room full of people and point one person and say that he’s a pedophile, he is one. Even though he isn’t and has never even had a thought in that direction he becomes a pedophile instantly. and in the minds of those people he will always be one. Even if proven differently this stigma is always there.

    All Rush has to say is that Obama is this and that and it sticks. You don’t have to justify anything to his followers. This goes for the people who follow back and for the most part the upper leadership of the two party. I was on twitter yesterday searching for names because I am making a webpage of all the correct @ names for political people. Some of the stuff on the tea party express page is absolutely insane. It seems that sharia law as their most important issue. They are fully convinced that Obama is here to institute sharia law. There again, all someone had to do is say it and the blind will follow it.

    I could be wrong but I have a feeling that the time for valid argument is long gone. I think to some degree it is totally gone in our Senate and House of Representatives and it is gone and in candidate process.

    In short I think the Republicans have hit upon the best method for getting elected in these times. Throwing stones and telling lies

  3. I’m going to save this. Just yesterday er saw this on this site from Winfred. They can’t explain what socialism is but they’re sure Obama and all of us want it
    The worst part is that the wingers due to their age bracket are more likely to benefit from ss. And Medicare.

  4. I love this, Hraf:-) Very handy guide for detecting fallacious arguments. I have several books on the logic of arguments, one of which is geared for Right wingers – how to distract, smear, etc in order to win an argument. It never seems to occur to them that if you have to do that, maybe you’re not really engaged in a legitimate argument, but rather a war for which you have no excuse or reason.

  5. The very best argument my Republican friends can make against President Obama is that he is not fixing the economic catastrophe (that they created) quickly enough.

    Over the past year and a half, President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress have taken the bold steps necessary to pull America back from the brink of a second Great Depression and to repair the damage caused by nearly a decade of failed economic policies that Republicans put in place during the Bush Administration. Now, Republicans have not only failed to join Democrats as they worked to pass job-saving legislation; they have actively opposed initiatives that are beginning to move American forward — from the Recovery Act to Wall Street reform; from jobs bills to small business tax credits to promote private sector hiring.

    Republicans in Congress made a cynical political calculation that if they put up roadblocks in front of every major Presidential initiative, no matter its merit, the Republican Party would benefit.

    GOP leaders are proudly predicting major victories for Republicans this fall due to voter discontent over the economy. For the sake of the U.S. economy, let’s hope they are wrong. We must not go back to their failed policies of the past.

  6. Thanks, Sarah :) I’ve been wanting to address this for some time but it turned out to be a much longer discussion than anticipated, so I couldn’t go into as much detail as I desired – but at least I could touch on a few of the low points of Republican discourse. I would think that book you speak of would be very enlightening! And as you say, if they have to resort to such tactics it’s an admission that the facts don’t support their narrative.

  7. Someone said on Digg about the article I wrote on the economy the other day, that it was disingenuous of me to fail to mention the past two years. I pointed out to her that it was dishonest of her to claim the past two years are any indication of Democratic control, given that it was the fault of the Republicans. I think Krugman mentioned the short term memory failings of voters but he predicted that even if the GOP makes gains in 2010, they will be the ones being blamed by 2012 because with them in charge it won’t get any better – just worse.

  8. I love that sort of thing, Dani…they know it when they see it even when they have no idea what they’re talking about. They accuse the Democrats of being communists or Nazis but fail to see their own appeal to some ultimate truth of their political ideology and their resistance to debate and compromise puts them in the totalitarian camp, not the Democrats

  9. Saying my ideology says the world is “X” won’t ever make it “X” – you have to be willing to look at and consider new data that may change how you see things, or your understanding of how things work. The party of anti-science can’t make that leap. It’s ideologically impure.

  10. I hope we can regain the time for valid arguments. I guess a lot will depend on the upcoming elections.

    Sharia Law…sheesh.

  11. This seems like a series to me. Perhaps every time they engage in another revisionism of reality….of course, that would mean that you never wrote about anything but this.

  12. The Republican Party is a disgrace to this country and its people!
    They have done everything possible to destroy it and anyone that wants to serve this country. Republicans are self serving in mentality and service. Of course not all of the GOP are bad. I mean there’s still Colin Powell. But most of the lot are misleading the people of America and getting away with it. They are the biggest cons in town.
    This was a very insightful article. The media has been highly irresponsible in making the facts known to the people. The media has chosen to reward sensationalism and extreme behavior instead in a climate full of fear and struggle. And the fear has reached a feverish pitch because it has been fed by Palin, Rush, Beck and Gingrich.

  13. Great article Hraf! I have had to stop myself at times when I get overly concerned as to whether or not I have enough evidence to back up my argument when I am about to go on a radio show (for instance) as I am doing in an hour.

    Then I stop, and remember, just who it is that will be pushing back at what I have to say about separation of church & state; the dark side of Palin’s America and so on…and I shake my head and think “what am I concerned about?” The prevailing voices that are now representing the neo-conservative incarnation of the Republican Party have been trained NOT to think!

    These people have no idea how to formulate an argument or substantiate their own views that have been programmed in by expert behavioristics from their pulpits to their politics.

    They have been relegated to playground bullies and loyal minions to the very machine that suppresses them and they can’t even see it. There is no hope for logic and true debate. As Palin has shown us, all she has to do is spew out vitriol and they follow. Pathetic, really…

  14. Thank you, Leah. I find that most of their “argumentation” consists of “contradiction” and “ad hominem” attacks and that in the end, no matter how carefully you back up your thesis or however many citations you include, you will be rebuffed with an anti-intellectual, knee-jerk cry calling you “stupid” or “anti-American,” etc. As you say, they seem to thrive on this highly-charged negativity.

  15. I remember how the Republicans lied with impunity during the 2008 election cycle. They would get on the air, spew their lies, and very seldom had their views questioned, and when a liberal was present to take an opposing viewpoint, the allegedly “liberal media elite” always let the Republican get in the last word, and thus leave the lasting impression. At least “Morning Joe” has laughed at the likes of Angle and Gingrich.

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