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Published onMay 26, 2020

We make political mistakes. They matter.

That’s no surprise, you might be thinking dourly. After all, some kinds of political mistakes are obvious. There are errors of judgment. We fight wars we shouldn’t fight and we don’t fight wars we should. Our tax policies are misguided, our environmental policies indefensible. Then there are factual errors. We believe that foreign aid consumes a big chunk of the federal budget, when actually it’s a fraction of a percent.

I don’t mind if you reject my examples. Maybe you never met a war you didn’t like—or a war that you did. Maybe you think our tax or environmental policies are the pinnacle of perfection. Maybe you don’t trust federal budget reports or you calculate foreign aid on a more expansive basis. All fine by me, for present purposes, anyway. Instead, I want to take aim at a different kind of political mistake.

I’m interested in some bad arguments that we make. So I’m not out to attack any set of policies. My target is some of what we say in trying to justify what our policies should be, in giving reasons for and against this or that policy. So, for instance, maybe our welfare policies are too stingy, maybe they’re too generous, or maybe in different ways they’re both at once. I’ve got nothing to say about the proper design of the welfare state, nor for that matter whether we should get rid of it. But some of the arguments we make about the welfare state don’t make sense. If we stop relying on those crummy arguments, we’ll likely have a different sense of our problems and possibilities, of what kind of welfare state might be desirable, or anyway less undesirable. But that sort of thing would come only after we stop making mistaken arguments, and again I’ve got nothing to say about it here.

You might suspect that I’m being coy, evasive, deceptive; that I know damned well what policies I’m after and that I’ve reverse-engineered the exercise, so that I’ll deem arguments mistaken if and only if they help justify policies I happen to dislike. You might turn your suspicion into conviction when I tell you cheerfully that these days, the mistakes I have in mind cluster mostly on the right-hand side of the aisle. But I’ve never been a very good partisan. I find it not just easy but insistently tempting to criticize what “my side” is up to, also to notice what the “other side” is getting right. So when I indict left versions of the mistakes I criticize, I’m not pretending to be dispassionate and I’m not wincing in pain. Objectivity isn’t the same as what’s now rightly denounced as false equivalence, insisting that everything goofy or pernicious on one side of the aisle meets its equally goofy or pernicious twin on the other. It’s letting the chips fall where they may, following the argument where it leads.

Or you might be derisively rolling your eyes at how seriously I take political arguments. The real action, you might insist, is elsewhere. It’s in racial solidarities and hatreds, in the money sloshing around in political cesspools, in the crazed distortions of journalism (insert your least favorite newspaper or network here), in the fatuous mindlessness of slogans and scandals. How naive to take arguments seriously! I get it, or at least I think I do. I know that in 2015, one GOP presidential contender after another sought solemn audiences with Sheldon Adelson. Not with you (unless you happen actually to be Sheldon Adelson, but I’m going out on a limb and betting that you’re not), not with me, but with a guy with endless millions who’s demonstrated that he’s willing to spend them on politics. No, those weren’t courtesy calls.

There’s more to our politics—there should be more to our politics—than the polite or even heated exchange of arguments. People organize to pursue their interests. Union representatives instruct congressional representatives that they are relying on their vote on some bill, and that their members will be out in the streets opposing them if they don’t come through. That’s a threat, not an argument, and I’ve got nothing against it. Corporate lobbyists regale their audiences with contrived tales of some imagined legislative or administrative action. The tales come oozing honey or dripping vinegar, and they might be every bit as false as our beliefs about foreign aid and the federal budget, and I wouldn’t banish them, either. Thousands marching in the streets aren’t in the business of offering arguments. They’re there to demonstrate how much they care. More power to them, say I, and sometimes I mean that literally.

So our politics aren’t a soporific discussion, where no one strategically pursues coveted goals and everyone just wants to figure out what position seems best. Nor should our politics be a soporific discussion. But arguments, too, are and should be part of our political lives. Critics of liberal democracy have long scorned our endless debates, the ceaseless chatter of citizens in bars and coffeehouses, bowling alleys and barbershops, the dueling op-eds, the never-ending debates in the legislature, in committees and subcommittees, the exchanges between citizens and their representatives in town halls. Now we can add indictments of social media, and though social media are new, the indictments are old. These debates, snarl the critics, are contemptible, indecisive, effeminate; we need action.

The critics are dead wrong. In arguing about politics, we advance our understanding of our problems and possibilities. We canvass evidence, weigh reasons, develop a sharper vision of what should come next and how to achieve it. That macho man of action who scorns democratic chatter can’t see the world clearly. His allegedly decisive action is flailing around in the dark. We can do better. And we can do even better if we learn to identify and discard bad arguments.

The mistakes I’ll explore have distinguished lineages. They go back centuries in political theory. So there’s no need to lampoon people who fall for them as stupid or wicked, the two dispiriting alternatives we routinely summon up to diagnose political disagreement. It’s a helpful reminder, too, that I could be wrong in thinking that these arguments are mistakes. But the only way to sort that out is, you guessed it, further argument. Vigorously criticizing others’ views isn’t demeaning; it’s a sign of respect. What’s demeaning is dismissing others with contempt, name-calling, eye-rolling.

I’m a professor—my field is political theory and I’ve been teaching at the University of Michigan’s law school for thirty-some years—and there’s a baleful literature about us professors, typecast as condescending and clueless. More cause, perhaps, for your suspicion. On that, I’ll be brief and blunt. I used to think that professors were faintly ridiculous, but then my daughters disabused me of the adverb. Sure, I’ve had the luxury of reading and thinking about these issues for a long time. But I neither expect nor desire the slightest bit of deference for anything I say. You should read the following reflections as precisely what they are: more political arguments addressed from one citizen to another. I would ask only that you resist the temptation to think that some argument makes sense just because it helps secure one of your favorite political causes. Right, that applies both to the arguments I’m assailing and to the ones I’m offering.


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