The Nature of Political Argument

Following politics can often be extremely frustrating if one seeks something like truth as opposed to victory. So much of what goes on involves one sided arguments that one side accepts as God’s word and the other treats as the Devil’s. Part of the problem is ignorance about politics that is fueled by what is known as rational ignorance. Another part of the problem is the emotional charged aspects of political debate. Yet another part is that people view political matters as involving teams – statements are seen as supporting one or the other team, and players are supposed to be loyal to their team.

I thought of this when I saw this excerpt from Tim Geitner’s new book:

I remember during one Roosevelt Room prep session before I appeared on the Sunday shows, I objected when Dan Pfeiffer wanted me to say Social Security didn’t contribute to the deficit. It wasn’t a main driver of our future deficits, but it did contribute. Pfeiffer said the line was a ‘dog whistle’ to the left, a phrase I had never heard before. He had to explain that the phrase was code to the Democratic base, signaling that we intended to protect Social Security.

What is interesting about this claim is the nature of the communication. In order to indicate that the Administration would “protect Social Security,” Geitner was supposed to make a false claim about Social Security’s effect on the deficit. I suppose that if one is willing to lie about the effects of Social Security, then that suggests one is committed to protecting it. But it is not clear that many people would have known that Geitner was lying (although perhaps the Democratic base would have). Rather, the point seems to be that, if one admitted that Social Security contributed to deficits even a little, then one might be willing to “cut” Social Security. Thus, it is not enough to say, honestly, that one believes that Social Security is important enough that one should not cut it even if contributes to the deficit. Instead, one cannot acknowledge that Social Security even contributes to deficits.

The combination of political ignorance and team play – and the crowding out of rational argument – is what much of politics is all about. Sad, but true.

Mike Rappaport

Professor Rappaport is Darling Foundation Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism. Professor Rappaport is the author of numerous law review articles in journals such as the Yale Law Journal, the Virginia Law Review, the Georgetown Law Review, and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. His book, Originalism and the Good Constitution, which is co-authored with John McGinnis, was published by the Harvard University Press in 2013.  Professor Rappaport is a graduate of the Yale Law School, where he received a JD and a DCL (Law and Political Theory).

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  1. gabe says


    You are too much of a gentleman when you ascribe certain behaviors to “rational ignorance.” Perhaps, “willful” is a better descriptor for certain of these actors, and as Geithner’s incident reveals, it is willful on the part of both the originator of the message and those that choose to receive as issued.
    BTW: Thanks for the link to Downs’ book – goodness, I read that 45 years ago and rather enjoyed it but could never remember the author.
    All in all, what he say, while true for the mass of voters, may not necessarily obtain for the more politically involved who have “incentive” to ignore certain facts that are not supportive of their world view. Be this rational or not, heck I don’t know.

    take care

  2. Ron Johnson says

    You forgot old fashioned dishonesty. We lie about Social Security because we can’t tell the truth about what we plan to do.

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