How to Turn the Political Tide: Reward Rational Thought06.26.10
From the blatant lies passed off as truths by Arizona’s governor to the Rolling Stone reporter whose article ultimately led to Gen. McChrystal’s forced resignation, the question raised by The Economist, Andrew Sullivan, and others seems more relevant than ever now: do intelligent arguments make a difference?
With so much of the blogosphere ripe with deeply partisan, harsh opinionators, and the populist movement in full force across the country, playing toward people’s emotions has seemed to trump rational arguments. We’re living in a time when a journalist has to defend his reporting because it’s so vastly different from what gets passed off as news and journalism with outlets like Fox News, MSNBC, and the Washington Post dangerously blurring the lines:
“Look, I went into journalism to do journalism, not advertising. My views are critical but that shouldn’t be mistaken for hostile – I’m just not a stenographer. There is a body of work that shows how I view these issues but that was hard-earned through experience, not something I learned going to a cocktail party on fucking K Street. That’s what reporters are supposed to do, report the story.” – Michael Hastings
In a debate with other gubernatorial candidate, Matt Jette, who said that a lot of undocumented workers “are just trying to feed their family… They just want to work,” Arizona Governor Jan Brewer responded with:
“We are a nation of laws. And they are coming across our border illegally. And the majority of them in my opinion and I think in the opinion of law enforcement is that they are not coming here to work. They are coming here and they’re bringing drugs. And they’re doing drop houses and they’re extorting people and they’re terrorizing the families. That is the truth, Matt. That is the truth…”
Notice how her argument is based on her opinion, which at the end, she passes off as truth, as fact. In her argument, there is no difference between what she believes and what is real.
Now, let’s just say for the sake of argument that she’s right: the majority of illegal immigrants are coming across the border to sell drugs and terrorize Americans. If that’s the case, and the numbers (because there have to be numbers to prove something like this which is calculable) show this to be the case, then there’s no need to even bring up one’s opinion, or allude to the possible opinion of some third party. There’s no my feelings versus your feelings; it’s just these numbers show this is happening, plain and simple.
The obvious reason that Gov. Brewer didn’t handle the argument in this manner is most likely two-fold:
- The numbers weren’t in her favor. There are more than double the number of Border Patrol agents on the border now than six years ago, and the crime rates in border towns in Arizona haven’t changed much at all in the past decade.
- The masses aren’t interested in numbers. Not to say that people are stupid, but when in large groups, it’s easy to play to emotions. And emotions run high these days with nearly two years of unemployment near 10%, the housing market crashing, and broad anger toward those who are supposed to be the ones who can do something about it all.
To look outside of Arizona, let’s take the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Outrage slowly built after the initial oil rig explosion when people realized just how grave the situation was and how difficult it was going to be to fix it. That outrage initially went right at BP, for good reason; but, as the weeks flew by with oil churning out of the earth, blame shifted to President Obama and the government — he should be doing more; he hasn’t done enough; he hasn’t been putting enough pressure on BP; he hasn’t even met with BP’s then-CEO Tony Hayward.
When you ask people what they expect Obama to do that hasn’t yet been done, no one can give an answer. And no one has an answer because no one has the answer. The only actual fix seems to always have been the relief wells that are currently being dug and won’t be finished until August; everything else has been done on a wing and a prayer. Not to say that the different methods of stopping the leak shouldn’t have been attempted, only that the probability of their effectiveness was never all that high — the “top kill” method only had an admitted 60-70 percent chance of working, and that was being optimistic since it had never even been attempted at that depth before.
People don’t like feeling helpless. It might be the worst feeling, up there with guilt and shame. We don’t take it well when we’re told “there’s nothing you can do.” Usually you see this happen in a movie, in a hospital, when someone is told that there’s nothing more anyone can do to save someone who is dying and they demand, hysterically and angrily, that the doctor do something, that there must be another option, something else they can try. The raw facts of the situation won’t change the emotional response of the poor soul dealing with the reality of his futility.
This feeling of futility seems to be the source of the growing populist movement of broad, unfocused anger toward the establishment. There must be a way to fix the economy, create jobs, solve the undocumented worker issue, stop global warming without it costing us a cent, find an everlasting geyser of oil, and plug the gaping hole in the Gulf — we just haven’t found it yet, haven’t tried hard enough yet. And indeed there must be. But the only way will be to look at the facts with a rational eye. It won’t be quick. It won’t be easy. And there will have to be sacrifices.
It’s easy to throw tantrums, point fingers, and react with our emotions, but there’s a reason why that didn’t work as kids, and why we need to be strong now and realize why it can’t help now that we’re adults. Rational arguments can make a difference. But it means having to face reality, as difficult as it may be, and rewarding those who give logical explanations for ways to solve problems and dismissing the ones who don’t. It’s up to us.