Friday, October 29, 2004


Political Discourse

Everyone has talked about it. Political roundtables on television have devolved to shouting matches. Extremists in the blogosphere walk a fine line between criticism and slander or threats that would never be printed in a newspaper or uttered face-to-face. Lies are shamelessly tossed about by candidates and their spokespersons. Shrill seems to be more prevalent and accepted. Old friends call each other despicable names and utter pejoratives without a second thought and they walk away from each other with disgust and anger. And it gets worse every day.

"Can't we all just get along?" doesn't quite get to the meat of a solution. Publius over at Legal Fiction has some thoughts.

If you'll allow me to get a bit abstract, I think what we're seeing is a breakdown of some of the invisible background rules that make debate possible in the first place.

... If there aren't "invisible" background rules in place, it doesn't work that well - or at all. For example, political debate only works when there's an invisible background rule - i.e., some sort of shared understanding - in place that limits how dishonest a candidate is allowed to be. (This is where a real media would help - they should be umpires.) Similarly, political debates won't work unless both sides are willing to submit (ex ante) to some sort of shared empirical reality, or perhaps a reality that can be shown empirically. For example, if I say, "That's an apple" - and you say, "That's an orange" - then there must be some mutually agreed upon methodology or epistemology that would allow us to settle this dispute. Without that common understanding, we might as well be speaking different languages.

But the current political atmosphere is so poisoned that we're not only disagreeing about issues, we're disagreeing about the fundamental rules that allow us to debate those issues in the first place. It's not much different than a baseball player turning to the umpire and saying, "No, I get four strikes!"

Our political thinking has become completely results-driven. The idea is that, first, our favored candidate or position is always correct - about everything. Period. Second, if the facts refute that, then we change the facts that we're perceiving. If the facts can't be refuted, we impugn the source. It's more of a pathology than it is dishonesty. And people on both sides do it (though I think people know that I blame one side more than the other).

I'm not sure why these background rules are breaking down, though I would welcome comments. In my opinion, it's a secondary effect of polarization on a number of substantive issues such as the war, impeachment, Bush v. Gore, taxes, and gay marriage. For whatever reason, these issues have split America into two camps and the two camps have come to despise each other. And when the animosity gets this high, the background rules themselves begin to melt under the pressure. If the facts support the other side, then by God the facts are wrong. And if saying the facts are wrong requires suspending empiricism, then so be it.

This is an excellent read and I hope it will cause further discussion elsewhere in the blogosphere.

I would disagree with the last paragraph in that I believe the downhill slide started in the '80's, but took a turn for the worse in 1994 with the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich to Speaker of the House. Garry Trudeau had it right when he depicted Gingrich in Doonesbury as the bomb-throwing loose cannon. This is the same Newt Gingrich who labeled Democrats as "the enemy of normal Americans." Standards of conduct went out the window. This was most recently illustrated when the Vice President of the United States told a senator on the U.S. Senate floor to go f*** himself. A few days later, he not only refused to apologize for his crude behavior, but endorsed such behavior for everyone to emulate because it made him feel better. I suppose it could get worse - the Vice President of the United States could put it into the Congressional Record.

So where will it end? We're going down a road upon which there may soon be no turning back.

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