A Matter of Debate

Before there was Facebook, and Twitter and Instagram, and blogs (the now increasingly rare personal ones) and fairly easy access to criminal records, college admission folks used to look at high school kids’ “activities” – sports and clubs and, sometimes, travel to odd places. Who should they admit, who would prove to be a credit to the school, and maybe later get rich and famous and send in lots of money? The captain of the high school football team was a good bet – he would be a future leader of men, or a used-up sloppy bubba running a used car lot for the rest of his life. That was a gamble, but the president of the Chess Club wasn’t. The hyper-intelligent with a need to win, by carefully thinking ten or twenty moves ahead of any opponent, always do well, even if they have the social skills of a slug. Volunteer work was good too – someone out to change the world for the better will probably continue to do that sort of thing. They might even change the world, and hey, they went to your humble and unassuming little college, so it must be a fine place.

Computer Club is good too. The kid could invent the next big thing no one ever imagined and become a billionaire ten times over a few months after he graduates. A giant new science building would be nice, and of course he could have it named after him, or her. It might be a young woman, maybe. Literary societies are good too – there might be a future famous novelist or poet in that lot – and amazing high school musicians get points too, as do young entrepreneurs who start their own successful businesses at fourteen. Head cheerleaders, however, get no points. Cute and perky don’t count for much in the real world. That chirpy cheerleader had better have parents who can pay full tuition and fees for four years, and the minimal academic skills to squeak by for four long years, if she wants in – and it would help if her parents are alumni, and donors. That might make her okay. The college admissions process is not terribly forgiving, and now you learn more by scanning social media anyway. Maybe the kid revealed on her Facebook page that she figured out cold fusion. It’s possible.

That’s unlikely. Look at what they did in school, when they weren’t nodding off in class. They made a choice. They jumped into something enthusiastically, for the fun of it or because they were good at it, or both. Their grades matter, and their SAT scores matter, but what they choose is who they are, and that makes the stars of the high school’s Debate Club hard to assess. They’re an odd lot, but debating societies have been around since the early eighteen century – a British invention. In fact, the most famous of these is still around, the Cambridge Union Society – and past officers of that society are legend. They include John Maynard Keynes and Arianna Huffington – the young Greek girl who became a Cambridge scholar and then married a conservative politician out here in California and became a prominent conservative apologist – in the Greek sense – and then, after their divorce, became one of America’s leading liberal voices.

What? That seems odd, but debate competitions are good training for that sort of thing. Each person is given the topic ahead of time, so they can think about it and prepare various arguments, but a coin toss decides who gets to argue which side of the issue. Then the two debaters have at it. You don’t get to argue what you believe, you only have to argue well, with superb logic and solid facts and telling examples, even if you’re stuck with arguing the earth is flat. You lose points for faulty logic and the usual fallacies – appeal to probability, affirming the consequent, denying the antecedent, argumentum ad hominem, circular reasoning, moral high ground declarations and all the rest. No points are awarded for changing anyone’s mind, however, because that’s not the point. The point is to show that you can argue anything brilliantly. The point is to show that you are, theoretically, absolutely convincing – no one should ever mess with you in a war of wits. No one, however, knows what you actually believe. They never will.

So, a college admissions officer considers the application of the star of the high school debate team. Do you want that kid spooking around campus for four years, making the other kids feel foolish and inadequate, unable to argue back? That’s asking for trouble, but you might have a brilliant politician on your hands – a future senator or president. Those are the people who argue brilliantly and change no minds – they rev up those who already know what they believe and want to hear it argued well, with devastating logic, and then go out and vote just the right way, in overwhelming numbers. Debate competition is the perfect training for that. Send the kid the acceptance letter.

It should be clear that no one in America ever changes their mind, as least because of some clever argument. Everyone knows about confirmation bias – people will recognize information that confirms their beliefs as the only relevant information. The information that doesn’t confirm their beliefs must be wrong, if it even exists. Forget various opinions about the facts. No one will even agree on the basic facts – they have different ones on Fox News and MSNBC. Obamacare is an epic failure. Obamacare is a stunning success. Which argument “feels” right?

That doesn’t mean nothing changes. People changed their minds about our Iraq War – the second one by the second Bush – but that wasn’t done through argument. The dismal facts on the ground, eight long years of them, starting with no weapons of mass destruction anywhere to be found, are what changed people’s minds. It was the same with gay marriage. The courts decided what they decided, but public opinion had already changed, because of the facts on the ground. Gay folks, coming out and standing up, just weren’t that scary. They weren’t scary at all – they have the same percentage of jerks as the general population, or maybe even a smaller percentage.

No one had to argue anything in either case – and of course no televised presidential debate ever changed anyone’s mind. Your guy did well and really stuck it to the other guy, which you loved, or he blew it, which had you really worried – but no one then voted for the other guy. Kennedy might have been suave and cool and handsome in that televised debate long ago – and Nixon looked pretty sleazy and shifty, sweating bullets in the close-ups – but the Nixon crowd voted for Nixon and the Kennedy crowd voted for Kennedy. The only thing that mattered was voter turn-out. No one remembers who argued what – and it’s been the same ever since. Arguments aren’t made to convince, only to confirm something or other, flawlessly, in grand style – just like in formal debate competition.

That just happened once again and MSNBC put it this way:

What a difference three months make. The Barack Obama who wore “ACA” like scarlet letters for the last quarter of 2013 sounded like a changed man during Thursday’s press conference on the Affordable Care Act. Rather than re-apologizing for the troubled launch of healthcare.gov, he reveled in numbers well-chosen to undermine the GOP’s 2014 campaign plans.

The first one was 8 million. That’s the number of people who have found private coverage through the new insurance exchanges since October. Only 4.2 million people had signed up by the end of February, and supporters worried that the exchanges would fall short of the 6 million needed to preserve a modicum of credibility. By March 31, enrollment had surged to 7.5 million, and the new figure turns the homerun into a grand slam.

And contrary to the Right’s predictions, the young adults needed to stabilize the risk pool and keep costs down didn’t boycott the call to protect themselves. Fully 35% of the new enrollees are under 35, according to the new figures.

Adding injury to insult for his critics, the president trotted out a series of recent analyses showing that private insurance rates are rising at half the pre-Obamacare pace, that Medicare spending is essentially steady, that the Medicare trust fund is gaining life expectancy, and that the expansion of health care will cost significantly less than expected over the coming decade.

“The bottom line is that the share of Americans with health insurance is up,” he said. “Cost growth is down. People with coverage have more protection. And people are no longer being discriminated against for having pre-existing conditions or being women. This thing is working.”

Give him points for marshaling the facts and presenting them effectively, and then, like any good debater, doing that QED thing:

He admitted that the health care law, like any act of such scale, still needed a lot of fine tuning – and he urged Republicans to stop pouting and pitch in. “I’ve always said that in any big piece of legislation there will be need to improve it over time,” he said. “But you have certain Republicans who think that making the law better is a concession to me. I recognize that their party is going through the stages of grief—anger, denial, all that stuff. We’re not at acceptance yet.”

By focusing so tightly on paralyzing the president, congressional Republicans have left themselves without many accomplishments to run on. But as affordable health care seeps deeper into American life, the crusade to kill it is becoming an ever-riskier venture.

“Millions of people are finally in a position to enjoy the financial security that health insurance brings,” the president sad. “That’s not an abstraction. It can mean that an illness won’t cost you your home, your business and your parents’ home.”

Quod Erat Demonstrandum – it is proven – but as in formal debate, that’s not the point at all:

Democrats, still traumatized by last fall’s embarrassments, have been slow to shout the good news, but Obama’s remarks offered them a script for the campaign season. “I want to talk about our plans for putting people back to work, building an economy that innovates, training people for the jobs that are out there now,” he said. “These endless, fruitless repeal efforts come at a cost. Those 50 repeal votes could have been devoted to infrastructure, innovation, minimum wage, unemployment insurance. The American people don’t want us to spend the next two years refighting the battles of the last five.”

The GOP reaction was true to form. “The White House continues to obscure the full impact of Obamacare,” a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner shot back at the president. “Beyond refusing to disclose the number of people who’ve actually enrolled by paying premiums, the president ignores the havoc that this law has wreaked on private plans that people already had and liked.”

Each side had different facts, and argues from those facts, and only from those facts. A master debater could argue from either set of facts – that’s what a master debater has trained to do exceedingly well – but master debaters don’t seek political power. This is a different matter and that’s where things get tricky, where you may have to play dirty.

CBS’s Major Garrett covers that in the in National Journal – the White House has a new version of what they call their “stray voltage” theory of communication. It’s simple, actually. The president purposefully overstates his case knowing that it will create controversy. Garrett describes the logic – “Controversy sparks attention, attention provokes conversation, and conversation embeds previously unknown or marginalized ideas in the public consciousness.”

In short, it’s sneaky, or as Slate’s John Dickerson writes, it’s a kind of refined cynicism:

The issue last week was the pay gap between men and women. The president issued executive orders to address the disparity, and Democrats pushed legislation in Congress. In making the case, the president and White House advisers used a figure they knew to be imprecise and controversial – a Census Bureau statistic that the median wages of working women in America are 77 percent of median wages earned by men.

Under this approach, a president wants the fact-checkers to call him out (again and again) because that hubbub keeps the issue in the news, which is good for promoting the issue to the public. It is the political equivalent of “there is no such thing as bad publicity” or the quote attributed to Mae West (and others): “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” The tactic represents one more step in the embrace of cynicism that has characterized President Obama’s journey in office.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with cynicism! It’s almost always appropriate:

Losing the news cycles between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. doesn’t necessarily matter; if by the end of the saga you’ve got a coherent story to pitch, the frenzy has simply given you a larger audience who will listen to it. “Stray voltage,” the term Obama strategist David Plouffe used to describe this approach, is also a great buzzword that makes it look like you’ve got a theory for what might otherwise look like chaos. But this twist is a new, higher order of deception: creating the controversy for the purposes of milking it.

Dickerson shows that winning the argument on the facts, then, is beside the point:

As long as people are talking about an issue where my party has an advantage with voters, it’s good. So, the theory goes, if I’m a Republican candidate, I benefit from conversations about budget deficits and spending restraint because voters trust Republicans more on the issue of the budget and spending restraint – and it excites Republican voters who care about those issues. Democrats have several reasons to keep stories about equal-pay equity in the news. It excites their voters, attracts female voters, and crowds out whatever the Republicans wanted to talk about (these days, Obamacare). It also sets a trap. The more Republicans have to talk about politically unfavorable issues, the greater chance they’ll slip up and say something dumb like candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock did that can be exploited more broadly.

Even if I’ve overstated the issue, more voters will hear that Democrats are fighting to pay women equally than will hear that the problem is overstated. Even if Ruth Marcus labels the effort “revolting demagoguery,” it doesn’t matter. In fact, equal-pay stories that create more controversy cycles about stories rooted in equal pay are just more opportunities for people to hear the words equal pay. See that? Equal pay!

Obama has learned what debate is really about, debate, not changing minds:

After President Obama took office, his campaign book The Audacity of Hope receded into his past fast. Its sweet, naive, bipartisan “let’s reason together” passages fell away, too. As experience and a determined opposition forced the president to act, his former passages started to read like something a freshman senator would write, then a college graduate, and then a college freshman. With the notion of “stray voltage” in mind, the passages read like they’re from a precocious high-schooler chiding the press for treating facts so loosely that the cumulative effect is to “erode any agreed-upon standards for judging the truth.” It is a pity, writes the author, that politicians prey on press conflict by feeding misleading storylines. “It rewards not those who are right, but those – like the White House press office – who can make their arguments most loudly, most frequently, most obstinately, and with the best backdrop.”

And now he’s doing the same thing, and Salon’s Joan Walsh is fine with that:

Lazy Beltway pundits have discovered a new Obama scandal: The president is telling his base the truth about how Republicans are making their lives worse, and he must be stopped.

Last week, Obama was accused of ginning up his base’s anger over voting rights: The New York Times reduced his Friday speech on the issue to an effort “to rally his political base,” while the Washington Post depicted the Democrats’ focus on voting rights as mere partisan strategy, calling it the party’s “most important project in 2014.”

Then came the National Journal’s James Oliphant, declaring that “Democrats are giving Republicans a run for their money in practicing the politics of grievance.” Oliphant accused Democrats of cynically exploiting anger over voter ID laws and the failure of bills to hike the minimum wage, reform the immigration system and help women achieve pay equity, for political gain.

Yes, but why not do that, because, politics aside, it’s also the right thing to do? That’s Walsh’s point:

The essence of Dickerson’s argument is of a piece with the lazy “grievance” meme spreading among his peers: Obama is doing something wrong by telling a component of his coalition, in this case women, that Republican policies are hurting them. In other words, telling the truth while also, yes, practicing politics.

We can certainly debate which number we should use when debating pay equity, but the notion that Obama is deliberately lying to create “stray voltage” by choosing the wrong number seems cynical, or worse.

This is worse:

Supposedly, the controversy around the White House continuing to use the Census Bureau figure – that women make 77 cents to a man’s dollar – even though other studies find a smaller gap, cements the impression that Republicans oppose measures to close the gap, and may create “stray voltage” to galvanize women voters in 2014 and 2016. Oliphant likewise relies on the pay-gap flap, and the Democrats’ embrace of the doomed Paycheck Fairness Act, as an example of unfair “grievance politics.”

But Republicans do oppose virtually all measures that might close the gap. It’s not just the Paycheck Fairness Act; take the minimum wage. Republicans (and others) say that 77 percent figure exaggerates the pay gap between equally qualified men and women, because women are clustered in low-wage fields. Raising the minimum wage would be a great way to get at that particular pay-gap widener, since two thirds of minimum wage workers are women. But of course, Republicans oppose not only the Paycheck Fairness Act, but an increase in the minimum wage as well.

Oh, but Democrats continuing to agitate for a minimum wage hike? That’s also unfair “grievance politics,” according to Oliphant, because “it may animate minority voters.”

Walsh is fed up with this nonsense:

So let me make sure I understand. Telling your voters, accurately, that Republicans are trying to make it harder for them to vote, and are blocking action on pay equity, the minimum wage and immigration reform is unfair “grievance politics”? Likewise, any effort to deal with the scandal of $1 trillion in student loan debt? Oliphant compares it to the grievance politics practiced by Republicans under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But that form of grievance politics mainly relied on inflaming white voters’ fears of cultural and racial change with false or highly exaggerated claims about Democrats.

I would also argue that when one party’s leaders declare upfront that they’re going to block everything the other party’s president tries to do, and when that party even retreats from solutions to problems that it once favored – in the GOP’s case, that includes the individual mandate, immigration reform, cap and trade, the Voting Rights Act, and periodic increases to the minimum wage – the cultivation of anger in order to turn out voters is an excellent and entirely defensible strategy. In fact, Republican obstructionism seems designed at least partly to demoralize the Obama coalition – many of them occasional voters already discouraged by the political process. If you can convince young people, Latinos and women that voting changes nothing, you can make up for your reliance on aging white voters.

That seems to be the plan, and Obama them took his turn and argued the other way – resistance is not futile, voting changes everything. He’s allowed to argue the other way, and he’s not the one who’s cheating:

This new “grievance politics” story line is just one more way mainstream journalism’s weakness for false equivalence, which is intellectually lazy, politically rewards Republicans.

Perhaps so, but mainstream journalism’s weakness may be that it never understood what all debate is actually about. Argument doesn’t change minds. Only the facts on the ground, as they evolve, change minds. Brilliant argument, or sly argument, confirms beliefs, irrefutably, if done well, and makes the other side a bit defensive about their beliefs, and begins to demoralize them. In debating societies, you win prizes when you can do that, repeatedly. In politics, you win elections. In college admissions, you send the kid the acceptance letter. He’ll go far, or she will. Elizabeth Warren is in the wings.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to A Matter of Debate

  1. Rick says:

    And now, an argument from the other side of the issue of whether presenting an argument is even worth it:

    First off, I contend that, just because people aren’t always swayed by argument in debates, this doesn’t mean debates don’t influence how people vote. Some people are encouraged when their candidate presents what looks like a winning argument, and so he comes off looking like a winner.

    And that matters. People tend to vote for winners, and as long as that candidate falls within that group of candidates who’s thinking is mostly like your own, you are likely to vote for the one in the group who also impresses others as a winner.

    We saw a good example of this effect in 2007, when it was reported that huge numbers of black American voters were not getting behind the candidacy of Barack Obama, reportedly because they believed a black man had zero chance of getting elected president in this country, and only came around in 2008 after he did so well in Iowa, of all places. It’s not that they didn’t like him, they just didn’t want to waste their vote on someone who, they thought, had no chance.

    We, the voters, don’t just think as individual operators; we start out deciding what we believe, but then we go on to think as a group. The ability to project ourselves as group thinkers is one of the factors that makes democracy work.

    “Argument doesn’t change minds. Only the facts on the ground, as they evolve, change minds.”

    Yes, but a good argument will remind listeners of those “facts on the ground” that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, and this sort of thing does change minds.

    An example of this is same-sex marriage. Ten years ago, hardly anyone favored it, but after just a few years of public debate in which proponents continually pointed out that two guys getting married does absolutely no harm to you and me, public sentiment turned — and turned even faster after it became known that most people were changing their minds.

    I don’t have too much of a problem with this “stray voltage” concept, as far as it goes, but giving it too much weight, I would think, could tend to make us totally discount the idea of actually changing people’s minds. For example, per Slate’s John Dickerson:

    “So, the theory goes, if I’m a Republican candidate, I benefit from conversations about budget deficits and spending restraint because voters trust Republicans more on the issue of the budget and spending restraint – and it excites Republican voters who care about those issues.”

    The problem with Democrats thinking they should stay away these subjects is that voters need to learn from somewhere that Republicans are wrong about budget deficits and spending restraint, and that, because not even the Democrats seem to disagree with Republicans on these things, then it must be true that we do need to cut spending and balance the budget (which, in reality, we need to do the opposite) — and, in fact, since the Republicans are the ones arguing in favor of these things, we should vote for them.

    Too often, we allow ourselves to give in to the cynicism that has come to replace intelligence in politics, and so we end up doing really stupid and lazy things. It’s not brain surgery. Yes, arguing for doing the right thing takes effort and is time consuming and subjects you to ridicule — and to top it off, doesn’t always work — but it still has to be done, because if it’s not, the country suffers.

    And no, I’m not just saying this because I’m trying to be argumentative. Sometimes, people really do believe what they say they do.


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