How to Have a Real Political Argument, 2017 Edition
We need to stop having surface-level conversations about politics.
In the past week, we’ve heard way too many attempts to wedge what happened in Charlottesville into a broken, “both sides do it” political discourse. And every time Trump opens his mouth without a teleprompter to guide him, he seems to reach new heights of incoherence, despite mountains of fact-checking and condemnations from within and outside his own party.
The truth is that for too long, Beltway-driven discussions about politics have embraced civility between the elites in the two parties over the realties of how the policies they debate affect our lives. As a result, the right wing of the Republican Party has drifted further and further toward reactionary extremism, taking a mile every time liberals give them an inch.
The results of this drift — the fascists in the streets of Charlottesville, a ham-fisted attempt to strip millions of their healthcare, modern day Jim Crow, the censoring of climate research, and a conspiracy theorist Republican president—show us that it’s time for liberals and progressives to make clearer, more forceful arguments that win.
The power of media condemnations, statements of concern, and even Trump’s own disavowals of white supremacists mean less and less.
Our politics are back to basics now.
In person, political arguments should focus on helping people think about what politics means in their everyday lives and for their neighbors, particularly real actions we can take to improve our democracy.
In the media, arguments should serve to advance a clear case to viewers. Rhetorical questions, pedantic fact-checking and pleas for civility don’t resonate. But clear cases about what politics means for our lives and livelihoods do.
Demand a conversation about the consequences of policy
Our political discourse too often focuses on who’s being unfair to whom during a televised debate, who’s calling who names on Twitter, and who we should blame for whatever catastrophe just unfolded. The lamest versions of these surface-level arguments involve feigned outrage at supposed hypocrisy and complaints about unfair media coverage, obviously two of Trump’s favorites.
Fixing this means we need to stop treating our politics like a sport. It isn’t one. Politics is a contest of power that affects real people’s lives, in which the winners make the rules of the game.
So when we talk politics, let’s focus on what it means for real people — where we live, where we play, where we work and where we worship.
I’m much less interested in a debate about whether or not Trump is personally racist and much more more interested in a debate about how to end systemic racism, particularly racist policies that make it harder for people to participate in elections. Similarly, I’m less interested in debating the process of legislating than I am in the actual policy outcomes we have to live with, like whether or not our neighbors will still have healthcare six months from now. And I’m definitely not interested in what some random celebrity said about an issue or politician. The surface level of politics should never distract us from the deep undercurrent of why politics matters.
Forget what’s in a politician’s heart — let’s debate what’s crossing their desks.
(Update, 9/25/17) Similarly, don’t get distracted by surface-level debates about whether or not it’s okay for athletes to take a knee during the national anthem. Of course it’s okay. The protests started because we live in a society that refuses to grapple with systemic racism: including mass incarceration, Republican officials taking away black peoples’ right to vote, and a lack of accountability for police brutality.
Is it disrespectful to kneel during the anthem? I don’t think so, but I think it’s certainly more disrespectful to deny black people their right to vote. Should the athletes find another way to protest? I don’t think so, but shouldn’t we find a way to actually deal with what they’re protesting?
Respect people, not bad arguments
Our politics suffers from a West Wing-inspired illusion that if we all just respected each other enough, we would be able to resolve our political problems. But not all political positions deserve respect and people with bad policy positions exploit calls for personal civility to mask the weakness of their arguments. For instance, conservative writer Bret Stephens used his first New York Times column to urge climate advocates to take it easy lest they offend the sensibilities of people who aren’t on board with climate action. In his mind, making sure that people like him don’t feel bad about not wanting to effectively address climate change is more important than effectively addressing climate change.
So while we don’t need to be rude to each other, we do need to be clear about what we stand for, and a good argument actually clarifies that. So again, don’t argue about whether or not someone should be called a climate denier— argue about whether or not we want our country to have clean air, clean water, a safe climate and millions of good clean energy jobs. Or to put it more bluntly, if Bret Stephens really doesn’t want to be called a climate denier, the best thing he can do is stop getting climate science wrong and come up with a real plan to address climate change, not complain about people on Twitter being mean to him.
This is politics, not high tea.
Ask people what they’re doing about it.
Talk is cheap and the extremist drift of the Republican Party and Trump’s babbling have made it even cheaper, along with the splintering of the media we consume. That’s why we need to challenge people to take action, not just policymakers, but ourselves, too.
For instance, I’m glad some GOP members of Congress condemned Trump’s words about white supremacy. But what they are they doing to restore funding to programs that keep people out of hate groups? That’s where their power counts: in what they do, not what they say.
At the personal level, a typical conservative who wants to complain about liberals or anti-fascists or media coverage literally has no influence over the target of their complaints. But most conservatives are actually unsatisfied with Congress and many are unsatisfied with President Trump. So let’s challenge our family members, friends and neighbors who lean right to make their own party better. Ask them if they’ve called their member of Congress since the election about anything. Ask them if they think Trump is going to get impeached or face a primary challenge. And ask them what it would take for them to vote for a third party or a Democrat in 2018 or 2020.
For liberals, push each other to recognize that the old politics of Beltway deliberation and elite consensus is gone. There’s no returning to the world where John McCain and Russ Feingold buddied up to pass bipartisan campaign finance reform, not in the near future and maybe not ever. Our politics no longer serves the need of making us comfortable, especially at a time when economic inequality has skyrocketed and injustice is so evident. That’s why progressives are pushing their leaders to adopt a populist and popular platform that will make people’s lives materially better — higher wages, healthcare for everyone, fighting discrimination, and millions of good clean energy jobs. Relentlessly focusing on a left-leaning, populist platform that benefits working people is the likeliest path back to power for Democrats. That and a hell of a lot of door-knocking.
Use your time effectively — door knocking > arguing
Arguing with people who don’t know how to have an argument sucks. But it’s a symptom of how far gone our politics are. How many times have we tried to make a point in a political discussion only to have a friend, relative or online interlocutor respond with something completely off-topic? That’s propaganda at work and people reflecting whatever mental hoops they have to jump through to justify their political loyalties. It’s frustrating.
By contrast, door knocking is fun. Phone banking is fun. Tabling outside a supermarket to register people to vote is fun. It involves giving our neighbors actionable steps they can take to build political power and win elections. And, yes, you also get to talk to people who actually don’t have their minds made up about politics!
So if you’re going to spend a few hours each week or each month talking politics or rage-posting on social media, consider the most effective way to channel that time and energy. You don’t have to get into an argument — you can work with your neighbors to make our democracy better, and help people vote, vote, vote.
Some great new groups in this space are Knock Every Door, Brand New Congress and Swing Left. And, of course, you can get active in your local Democratic party and / or leftist social movement of your choice. Since the election, this space has turned into a giant democracy party.
So tell your step-dad you’re tired of talking about whatever propaganda he saw on Facebook this morning. Tell him that if he thinks his political opinions are open to changing, you can keep talking, but that going around in circles is kind of pointless and probably more harmful than helpful to your relationship.
And in the media, liberals and progressives should constantly be reminding their audiences about how to take action. We can’t resolve our problems in six minute segments on live television, but we can resolve them at a the ballot box. So reminding audiences to canvas, to phone bank, to help other people vote — is one of the best thing progressive spokespeople can do.
Because the best way to win arguments is to win elections.