Politics is a nasty business, or so we’ve made it. For the past two decades—from elements on the left and the right—we’ve been treated to an endless stream of political vitriol. Ronald Reagan pilfered the poor to enrich the wealthy (and had a nice cocaine smuggling business on the side, courtesy of the Contras and the CIA). Bill Clinton had his deputy White House counsel, Vince Foster, murdered, along with dozens of others who had intimate knowledge of his various misdealings (the complete list has been floating around the Internet for years). George W. Bush misled the country into a war for the benefit of his oil industry buddies—oh, and he’s listening in on your phone calls as well.
Foolishness knows no ideological boundaries, and nastiness has no party affiliation. This is hardly a new development in American history; the 19th century had its own unfortunate share of political mudslinging. But we appeared to have entered a truce in the mid-20th century—an agreement to debate issues rather than attack reputations.
It was nice while it lasted.
With the presidency of George W. Bush, things have gotten immeasurably worse. What once would have been dismissed by most as a crank position of the paranoid fringe—that a president would sacrifice the military and endanger the country to enrich his cronies—has now become a fairly widespread belief (even among the otherwise intelligent).
What is this instinct in us that refuses to grant the basic good intentions of those with whom we disagree? Our political opponents have become our enemies. (I’ve been guilty of this myself, but the Clintons are such a broad and inviting target.) It’s as though somewhere along the line, the ad hominem attack, poisoning the well, and the straw-man argument were removed from the registry of logical fallacies—yet another good reason why logic and rhetoric should be required courses in every high school.
And that’s precisely the problem. We embrace the easy conspiracy because we’ve lost the ability to argue. It’s not that we’re out of ideas, but that we can no longer communicate those ideas persuasively. As a result, all we have left is vitriol. In public formal debate, the losing participant is generally the first to resort to the ad hominem. It’s a nice distraction from his own failure to make his case. So it is in political discussions today.
Do you oppose the war in Iraq? Fine. Stick to your ideas—that the war violates just-war theory, or that our (and the world’s) intelligence capabilities let us down, or that Iraqi containment was better than Iraqi civil war. But let’s no longer hear, “No blood for oil,” or similar nonsense. And be ready to listen to your opponent’s rebuttal. If we’re honestly seeking the truth, we need to honestly consider alternative positions.
Does the idea of a President Hillary Clinton send you into fits? Fine again. Criticize her ideas—her shifting political positions, or her ill-disguised liberalism. But let’s have no more about the “American Evita.” Likeability is not a requirement for the presidency, and undiluted ambition has never been a disqualifier. Heaven knows, I’m no fan of the junior senator from New York, but I do believe she thinks her political positions will benefit the nation.
Charity is a requirement for every Christian, and yet it’s usually the first thing out the window in an argument. If you want to persuade, charity must come first. If you want a fair hearing for your own position, offer the same to those with whom you disagree. And by all means, let us reacquaint ourselves with the logical fallacies.