Why the political left sucks at arguing

Creative Commons Republic Elephant & Democratic Donkey CC https://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/

When discussing politics, the message often gets lost not because of what is said, but how it’s said. No more is this true than the way the left tries to argue its main points.

For some of us, it may seem like we were suddenly transported into a different country than our own. The foundational American ideas of fairness, freedom, and acceptance have been exchanged for unequal justice, domination, and the irrational fear of the “other.”

If you’re like me, you shuddered when you heard Donald Trump suggest the idea of a wall to keep out our southern neighbors. You probably sighed when Trump promoted full out war on ISIS and a return to endless warfare which won’t lead to peace, but more violence and bitterness around the world.

Maybe you found yourself at a party, a bar, or the water cooler, engaged in a heated discussion over these issues with someone who is a bonafide Trump supporter. The debate goes nowhere and you retreat to the corner, filled with rage with those who don’t “get it.”

These conversations usually go something like this:

You: “He wants to get us involved in another war and kills thousands of innocent people.”

Them: “Exactly! We need to get rid of ISIS and that can only happen with a president who’s tough.”

Sound familiar?

Why this type of arguing will never work

Gore Vidal speaking in 2009 — Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Asterix611

In The United States of Amnesia, a documentary about the late author Gore Vidal, he presents the problem with using morality-based arguments like the example above.

In the scene, Vidal explains that our country is split among those who think the idea of empire is good, versus those who think it’s evil.

True to the film’s title, we as a country never seem to learn the lessons of our past mistakes. Today there still exists this schism between those who think that establishing an empire is wrong and those who think it is right.

When we talk about a “divided America,” this is really what we are talking about. Some of us think we should be the leaders of the world and be aggressive in our foreign policy. The other side believes that each country is sovereign and shouldn’t be controlled by an outside force.

The issue crops up whenever we speak of American Exceptionalism, which is a fancy term for thinking that the US is superior to the rest of the world. Those waving the flag for American exceptionalism are essentially saying that since we are the moral compass of the world, then we should be an empire for the sake of the rest of the world.

By framing issues in moral terms, the left will always lose because they don’t understand the opposition’s point of view. Everything said to be a travesty by the left is considered a virtue by the right, and vice versa.

How to argue more effectively

Used with Creative Commons license

Fortunately, we can use this dichotomy to strengthen our arguments and perhaps sway the opposition’s opinion. Rather than call into question the other side’s basic understanding of the world, we can argue using that understanding.

If we understand the values important to the opposition, then we can reframe the argument in terms that won’t immediately turn them off.

Normally, people aren’t concerned about one issue only. There is a group of concerns that cause us to classify ourselves as Democrat, Republican, Independent, Libertarian, or whatever label we choose.

We can use this series of issues to present the issue in alternate terms, rather than attacking a single tenet, such as morality. Morality will always be the toughest to argue because it’s so integral to who we are. Our values are implanted in us from childhood. We’ve based our whole lives on our values and we’re certainly not going to change them in five minutes by the water cooler.

An example of reframing the debate

Let’s go back to that imaginary conversation about war with ISIS. From what we know about Bill, he is pro-war because he fears that ISIS will attack the US. Bill has a family and his main priority is to keep them safe.

How can we change the focus of the debate with Bill? He’s unlikely to see that ISIS isn’t the major threat that he thinks. Our media system portrays our country as constant prey to Islamic terrorism. He’s seen the bombed subway of London, the terrified tourists in Bali.

Bill’s opinion is hard to argue: They kill, therefore they should be killed.

But we can assume from Bill’s comments that he is fiscally conservative. And because financial matters are going to impact his family more directly, these issues will trump the more abstract foreign policy debates.

Rather than approaching foreign policy from a moral perspective, consider the economic impacts of foreign wars. At last count, here are some of the financial costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Now keep in mind, Stiglitz is left-of-center, so take these estimates with a grain of salt. But the CBO is as non-partisan as you’re going to find.

These numbers are staggering, especially when you figure the cost per household in supporting such a botched war. Seeing the actual cost of each family is a more effective argument than claiming that war is wrong. Because many people disagree with that statement (even myself sometimes).

Argue fair and smart

Woodward and Bernstein- Used under Creative Commons license

Next time you find yourself at a barbecue, dinner party, or by the water cooler, remember these tactics. Remember that it’s not about winning an argument, it’s about opening minds to seeing truths they may have neglected.

As Woodward and Bernstein said: Follow the money.