The Right Way to Argue: How Conservatives Can Prevail in Political Debate
Why We Fight
I assume that most of us take part in on-line and other debates for the sheer bloody combative fun of it, the way some people play chess or tennis, presumably responding to ancient Darwinian impulses. To be sure, in none of these contests, if you win, do you get to carry your enemy’s head back to your village, but you can sure feel the hormones surging.
However … perhaps there is a higher purpose we can serve at the same time as we sublimate those primal urges.
There are now thousands of on-line forums, of which several hundred prominently feature political debate and discussion. It is probably safe to say that, on any given night, tens of thousands of people are looking at them. There is every reason to think these numbers will grow. It is also probably the case that the sort of person who is interested enough in politics to take part in on-line political exchanges tends disproportionately to be the kind of “opinion leader” who influences several others around him.
The Social Context
My working assumption is that in every on-line debate, there is at least one person following it, if not taking part, who can be brought closer to the conservative camp, or, if he or she is already there, can be made a more effective member of it.
This belief, which is based on several decades in argumentative politics, is that behind the appearance of two united, monolithic, unshiftable blocks of enemies, one on the Right, the other on the Left, facing each other like two armies arrayed for battle, is a reality which is much more complicated. I believe it is closer to the truth to see the political spectrum as follows:
A plurality – between thirty and forty percent – of Americans identify themselves as “conservatives”. But not all of these people are highly sophisticated, knowledgeable political activists. On the conservative side may be people with good will, but who are not very knowledgeable about their beliefs. These may be young people who consider themselves conservatives, but are trapped on a liberal college campus; or high school students from a reflexively-conservative home where they have not had the opportunity to be armed intellectually with the ideas and facts which could support their parents’, and their, instinctive conservatism; or older conservatives who are just getting into the on-line world whose conservatism is based on solid personal experience, but who as yet lack the skills and intellectual ammunition for effective argumentation.
Good arguments supported by appropriate references to conservative books and journals and websites can play a role in consolidating all of these people’s beliefs and helping them prepare to take part in arguments themselves.
On the liberal side are people who think of themselves as liberals, but who may be conflicted about various aspects of the liberal program, or whose daily experiences don’t match the predictions of liberal theory (such as it is). I did a quick survey of a few dozen forums, asking people who had changed their beliefs – What made you change? I received quite a few replies to the effect, ‘It was when I graduated from college and had to start paying taxes’ or ‘It was when I opened my own business’. It might be possible to help speed such people along the path to Enlightenment by exposing them to the conservative worldview before they have these experiences.
We may have young rebels who thought that the proper target of their rebellious instincts was the white male establishment but who are beginning to find that the real enemies of their liberty are the Leftwing Thought Police.
Or we may even run into liberals who find that the decent liberal values which moved them to get into politics in the first place are actually best secured by the sort of ordered liberty supported by a prosperity-generating free market that conservatives champion, rather than by the ever-growing amorphous state, which liberals seem to want to strengthen in every aspect except that which is its proper function, protecting us from enemies domestic or foreign.
On the few liberal-dominated forums in which I have participated in the last few months, I have encountered (1) liberals who support the war in Iraq, (2) liberals who are vehemently against gun-control, being match target shooting competitors themselves, (3) liberals who are against abortion, (4) liberals who are against gay marriage, (5) liberals who are against Affirmative Action, (6) liberals who recoil at Political Correctness.
We may mock their inconsistency, but it would be foolish to do so. People are not machines for the processing of formal logic, who determine the axiom-set and rules of inference of politics and then proceed to mechanically deduce all the propositions which necessarily follow from them.
Rather, they draw upon their own experiences which are necessarily partial and limited. They are heavily influenced by friends, parents, teachers, professors, newspapers, radio, TV. They are moved by events, filtered through the media which present these events to them.
This is why talk radio has been so important in the growth of conservatism. It is why the phenomenon of ‘South Park Conservatives’ exists. It is why getting a job and getting married and having children is so often cited by people as part of the process of changing their minds in a conservative direction.
No one leaps in a single microsecond from full-blown liberalism to case-hardened conservatism. They proceed in a series of steps, from stage to stage, and they may not even be aware that they are occupying intermediate positions.
Even if a liberal stops in his political progress, and remains a liberal, but with conservative sensibilities on certain issues, that is a victory. Liberals will inevitably wield political influence at all levels of American society into the indefinite future. If we can persuade some of them that, for example, school choice is a good idea, then that alone is worth the effort.
And then, there are those people – the majority of Americans, by all polls – who think of themselves as neither liberal nor conservative, or perhaps a bit of both. How many of these take part in on-line debates, I don’t know. I suspect they make up a larger part of the ‘lurkers’. But they are surely there for the influencing, and the more of them we can inoculate against the errors of liberalism, and move in our direction, the better.
Coming Next: Part II. Some General Considerations on Political Debate