Rhetoric, truth and ontology in political debate

This may be a little disjointed, as I’ve been trying to think through a number of issues relating to the Giffords shooting and my research on partisan information flow. I’m cautiously optimistic that the broad discussion about violent rhetoric is headed in the right direction, even if it is accompanied by a considerable amount of whining about “blame.” But I still feel like we’re missing part of the point.

First, we are seriously eliding the differences between violent, angry and uncivil rhetoric. Sharron Angle’s line about “Second Amendment remedies” is a clear example of violent rhetoric; Ben Quayle saying he would “knock the hell” out of Congress is not; Alan Grayson calling his opponent “Taliban Dan” is not. But in the Washington-dominated conversation about this tragedy, this interpretation (as epitomized by MSNBC’s First Read) is on full display. Much of this concern could’ve been aired during any recent campaign without much editing — the Washington press corps and the political elites they interact with have been extremely concerned with “tone” for quite some time. Tone-based criticism has been a primary weapon against the influence of outsider-activists such as bloggers for years. That they would respond to this shooting by reprising one of their favorite tunes has me wondering just why they’re so concerned with tone and rhetoric, often to the exclusion of policy outcomes. Do political elites fixate on tone because they are both socially close to both sides of the Washington power balance and largely insulated from the outcomes of policy decisions? Could this lead them to view all political debate through this largely socially-driven lens? Ezra Klein took himself to task yesterday for suggesting during that health care debate that Joe Lieberman “was willing to cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands to settle an old electoral score.” This was a fairly personal attack on Lieberman, and probably an unnecessary one, but the core of the criticism was correct — the ACA will save hundreds of thousands of lives. That is, it’s not just a rhetorical device, it’s a policy with real outcomes. But for both passionate supporters and opponents of the policy among political elites, the rhetorical lens is just as important.

Once they abandon their concern for policy outcomes, their ability to moderate policy debates — which ultimately lie at the core of all this rhetoric — becomes extremely suspect. If you’re more concerned with rhetoric than outcomes, should you bother evaluating the outcomes, or the logic used to predict them? We can see this playing out in any number of recent debates. Look at the death panel claim, for instance. This was a claim that received significant criticism from the Left, and even some from the Right, usually in the form of, “Palin’s claim is a bit too strong, but still….” It was used to rile up opponents of health care reform and provided a quick and easy lineage of talking points for the GOP. It was, to be sure, a heated claim — the government was coming to kill our babies and old people — and that was seen by many as a problem. But really the problem with the claim wasn’t that it was heated, but that it was false. Imagine, for a moment, that it was 100% true. Babies with Downs syndrome would have to stand before these cartoonishly named “death panels” to anxiously await a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Wouldn’t you want to know? Wouldn’t you want somebody to scream from the rooftops, “Hey, this bill is going to allow the government to kill whomever it wants,” and do whatever they could to stop it? I would want to know that!

But it wasn’t true. Despite that, it was largely taken at face value. See also the “Ground Zero mosque,” the various fake bailouts, “Climategate” — you can even go back to Swift Boat ads of 2004, and probably well before that. Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of the modern Washington press corps seems to be that all sincerely held beliefs are taken on their own terms, and never directly challenged. Over the years, this has allowed us to generate not just duelling ideologies, or duelling information infrastructures, but duelling notions of reality itself. Adam Serwer notes that, “If people really believed 90 percent of what the conservative media were telling them, violence would almost be justified.” What the conservative media tell them is that, among other things, President Obama is literally setting up both a communist and an Islamic overthrow of the U.S. government. Again, the rhetoric itself needn’t be violent; it’s a heated, angry fantasy, which clearly positions a real person with real power as the ultimate villain. Serwer determines that really they don’t believe it, because we haven’t seen a violent uprising, though Digby has a list that suggests otherwise. On top of that list of actual occurrences, we can look to poll results — last August, Pew found that 34% of conservative Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim.

You don’t have to be perfectly sane to start with, or a card-carrying Tea Party member to potentially be influenced by this detachment from reality. It may be enough to be in a position to let this worldview wash over you to the exclusion of truthful information. And once you’ve been so washed, there’s no reason to expect you’re going to take up arms against anyone. But this detachment does more than create an angry environment — it makes political debate impossible. If we’re going to debate the cost/benefits trade-offs of a health care reform proposal, or a stimulus bill, or a tax cut bill, etc., we have to at least have some consensus about outcomes. We don’t have to, and probably never will, agree on which trade-off is best in either the short or long terms. But if your method of debating is to toss out CBO scores you don’t like and just rely on the Laffer curve and scare tactics for everything, we will never get anywhere.

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