political convention

political convention

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Politics of 'Straw Men' and 'Red Herrings'

A straw man is a distorted and difficult-to-refute argument your opponent attributes to you. A red herring is a dead fish that smells so badly you can’t help noticing it. In politics it’s an issue created to divert attention from what you’re really up to.

Conservatives invented a straw man when they said President Obama’s health care plan would be a single payer system leading to socialized medicine.  In fact, Obama’s plan from the start supported continuing private health insurance, but the socialized medicine fiction has yet to die. 

The Republican ballyhoo about slashing debt and reducing the government deficit is a red herring because it diverts attention from their ultimate goal, which is to kill or greatly reduce all social welfare and safety net programs.

Some ideas are simultaneously a straw man and a red herring. One is the argument, popular among conservatives, that the U.S. government  was founded as a republic and not a democracy. 

The conservatives say that in a democracy public demands on government have few restraints and in our system today those urges have gone too far. But if the country moved back toward a republic, the conservatives insist, political passions would be kept in check by powerful elite institutions like the U.S. Senate. This is why some on the right want to abandon popular election of senators and return to the original system where state legislatures appointed them.    

These ideas are a red herring in today’s political context because they divert attention from the conservative goal of silencing ordinary citizens in order to bestow power on useful friends like big business. The conservative argument is also a straw man because it raises an exaggerated specter of mob rule, which it attributes to "pure" democracy.

Opponents of democracy often take a philosophical tone in discussing these questions (a red herring in itself), but their real aim is to rationalize conservative objectives by painting liberals as being on the wrong side of history and averse to America’s true form of government. 

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently: “Over the years, the democratic values have swamped the republican ones. . . . Because we take it as a matter of faith that the people are good, we are no longer alert to arrangements that may corrode the character of the nation. For example, many generations had a moral aversion to debt. They believed that to go into debt was to indulge your basest urges and to surrender your future independence. That aversion has clearly been overcome [by those who believe in democracy rather than a republican form of government].”

The subtext here is about government indebtedness, which Brooks alleges will undermine the country’s future independence. It is also about morality and national character, which, according to Brooks, are already compromised by an impatient and self-indulgent populace.

Brooks has created a nearly irrefutable straw man here that targets popular support for such programs as Medicare and Social Security. Because of our massive government indebtedness, he is saying, it is un-American and morally wrong to continue these programs at their present cost.
The red herring is a little harder to spot. It shows up in his lofty sentiments about the goodness of people and their moral aversion to debt.  Concealed in the background is the shameful notion that fixing the deficit—really a fiscal monster that can be significantly reduced by withdrawing tax breaks for the rich—is more important to the country than health care for old people or support for the needy and disabled. 

While David Brooks writes in moderated tones on the topic of republic vs. democracy, other conservatives have gone off the map.  A speaker at a right wing conference in Salt Lake City several years ago described Sen. John McCain as a supporter of “mobocracy” because he concurred with some demonstrators that immigration reform should be carried out in a moderate and humane way.  Another speaker raged that the country is on its way to Mussolini-style fascism because certain politicians were listening to disenfranchised groups. 

Of course, most reputable historians and political scientists agree that the United States is a hybrid system with some elements of both direct democracy and a republic. There have been some gains for democracy with direct election of senators, women’s suffrage, and the abolition of impediments to voting such as the poll tax.  On the other hand, the wanton use of the filibuster by senate Republicans is a step in the other direction, as is the massive corporate influence on the political system. 
Keep watching  for straw men and red herrings. 

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