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The Nature of Political Argument

Following politics can often be extremely frustrating if one seeks something like truth as opposed to victory. So much of what goes on involves one sided arguments that one side accepts as God’s word and the other treats as the Devil’s. Part of the problem is ignorance about politics that is fueled by what is known as rational ignorance. Another part of the problem is the emotional charged aspects of political debate. Yet another part is that people view political matters as involving teams – statements are seen as supporting one or the other team, and players are supposed to be loyal to their team.

I thought of this when I saw this excerpt from Tim Geitner’s new book:

I remember during one Roosevelt Room prep session before I appeared on the Sunday shows, I objected when Dan Pfeiffer wanted me to say Social Security didn’t contribute to the deficit. It wasn’t a main driver of our future deficits, but it did contribute. Pfeiffer said the line was a ‘dog whistle’ to the left, a phrase I had never heard before. He had to explain that the phrase was code to the Democratic base, signaling that we intended to protect Social Security.

What is interesting about this claim is the nature of the communication. In order to indicate that the Administration would “protect Social Security,” Geitner was supposed to make a false claim about Social Security’s effect on the deficit. I suppose that if one is willing to lie about the effects of Social Security, then that suggests one is committed to protecting it. But it is not clear that many people would have known that Geitner was lying (although perhaps the Democratic base would have). Rather, the point seems to be that, if one admitted that Social Security contributed to deficits even a little, then one might be willing to “cut” Social Security. Thus, it is not enough to say, honestly, that one believes that Social Security is important enough that one should not cut it even if contributes to the deficit. Instead, one cannot acknowledge that Social Security even contributes to deficits.

The combination of political ignorance and team play – and the crowding out of rational argument – is what much of politics is all about. Sad, but true.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.