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Steadying the Goalposts: Avoiding Fallacious Logic In An Extreme Political Climate

In an era of hyper-polarization and fast-paced digital communication, political conversations are happening more often than ever before. Never has it been so easy for Americans from all walks of life and from all regions of the country to engage in political discussion via forums such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. One would expect this to improve our nation’s democracy: More exposure to various ideas, viewpoints, and information makes for a more informed voting public. However, this expectation relies on these conversations being civil, considerate, and factually accurate to be productive. As anybody familiar with online political discourse will know, this is rarely the case; discussions frequently devolve into blind partisanship, deflective tactics, and name-calling. The same can be said of non-digital discussions as well, and discourse in a general sense. If the level of political discourse could be raised, it could lead to a better understanding of politics for everyone involved.

The derailment of these conversations can often be attributed to the use of logical fallacies — in other words, debate tactics and general arguments that fail to follow sound reasoning, despite appearing to be correct. In today’s polarized political climate, the logical fallacy known as “the argument to moderation” appears quite frequently and feels particularly disruptive. Simply put, the argument to moderation asserts that when two opposing viewpoints are engaged in debate, the “correct” or “truthful” answer to the relevant question must be an evenly-split compromise between the two sides. (Of course, moderation and compromise are often quite effective; the logical fallacy occurs only when you believe that finding middle ground is always the only solution.) A related and equally relevant fallacy known as “false balance” occurs when media outlets give equivalent credence to two sides of a debate, even in cases in which one argument does not rely on factual evidence while the other does.

Like good discourse, fair compromises strengthen our democracy. But the argument to moderation creates unfair compromises in many scenarios, making it a dangerous trap to be avoided. In many political debates — especially those dealing with human and civil rights — a “middle ground” solution can be wildly unjust. Take, for example, the slavery debate of the 1800s, where you have two basic sides: abolitionists and slavery supporters. Obviously, slavery is a disgusting and intolerable practice, and the abolitionists argued for the “truthful” solution, while slaveowners tried to argue that slavery was necessary to their economic survival (and, of course, also espoused horribly racist views). However, if one were to apply the argument to moderation to the slavery debate, some sort of compromise — possibly the reduction but not outright banishment of slavery — would be seen as fair.

Even in cases where the fairest solution isn’t as clear-cut, the argument to moderation does serious damage. Middle-ground-ism and false balance can grant legitimacy to any side or viewpoint on a topic no matter how absurd; under the argument to moderation, flat earth believers would be heard just as loudly and treated with the same seriousness as the universal scientific consensus that declares our planet spherical. Similarly, those aware of the argument to moderation can use it as a negotiating tactic in order to achieve what they actually desire. Consider a scenario in which one group wants $50 million allocated to a certain program, whereas another group thinks only $1 million is needed. The first group can demand that $100 million be allocated, so that when the public outcry for a compromise arises between the two sides, they settle on $50 million, receiving what they wanted in the first place. If agreeing on middle ground is seen as the default ideal solution to any matter of debate, critical thinking and factual analysis become obsolete in comparison to rhetoric, posturing, and goalpost-moving.

The current extreme partisanship of American politics – along with the radical views and conduct of the Trump administration – make the argument to moderation a particularly frightening prospect. With little cooperation between the Democratic Party and the GOP, people have grown more restless for action and have started to demand compromise between the factions. What’s more, Trump’s radicalism has already made traditional conservatism seem like a tame, fair compromise by comparison, leaving little room for liberal viewpoints and policies. (Consider how many liberals — including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) — were hoping for 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney to be Trump’s Secretary of State.) A new normal could emerge: The ideological center could resemble something closer to the moderate conservatism.

A contemporary policy example can be drawn from Trump’s recent executive order restricting immigration from seven predominantly-Muslim nations. Due to the immediate and exception-free nature of the executive order, reducing the immigration restrictions to a more nuanced system could be seen as a fair compromise. But in fact, “arguments to moderation” sidestep the whole debate around whether any immigration restrictions are necessary. The same dynamic applies to the proposed border wall with Mexico — as a partial wall serves nobody’s interests — along with other stated goals of the administration.

The same could be said of where the two major American political parties are situated on the spectrum at the moment. The rise of the right-wing Tea Party in the Obama era has pushed the GOP further right; moderate Republicans like John Kasich and Mitt Romney are now less common than more staunchly conservative politicians like Ted Cruz. Because of this, the “middle ground” of debate between Democratic and GOP stances in Congress often resembles the policies of moderate Republicans. Unless one believes that moderate Republicans are consistently correct on every issue, they should be able to see why the argument to moderation fails here as well.

To their credit, both the American public and Democratic politicians around the country have largely avoided following this fallacious reasoning for the time being. Liberal Americans by and large are standing their ground, adopting the #NoBanNoWall hashtag as a rallying cry to protest and demonstrate opposition to both policies. The Trump administration just entered office and plenty of contentious political debates lie ahead – meaning plenty of opportunities remain for false compromises to emerge. But if the early days of Trump’s presidency offer a forecast into how the next four years will go, large sections of the public appear ready to hold our federal government to task.

Still, it’s very much worth it for the sake of our democracy and political discourse to raise awareness of the argument to moderation and other logical inconsistencies. By making these fallacies known and explaining why they don’t follow sound logic, they can be called out when put to use in debate and improve the overall level of political discourse. Part of this work happens naturally: Occasionally, one can actually see people pointing out well-known fallacies in online discussions. More structured steps can be taken as well. Activists on both sides of the political spectrum can make these fallacies a major talking point and part of their activism. The inclusion of logical fallacies as part of a larger lesson plan on critical thinking and debate in public schools could go a long way as well. Such a lesson would have to be taught without bias, of course, but the concept of following sound logic should be viewed as fair by all. Everyone stands to benefit from fair and honest debate, except for those who wish to be unfair or dishonest — and we shouldn’t be shaping our policy to serve them in any case. With the spread of this knowledge, it will become harder and harder to employ fallacies successfully in debate.

The internet has the potential to advance democracy to a level of participation higher than ever before. In order to achieve this, though, the way we handle discourse in person, in the media, and online must be improved. While the use of logical fallacies rarely comes from an insidious place, they still pop up far too often in debate to go uncontested. A balance must be struck between learning how to debate and compromise without falling for an argument to moderation. Hyperpolarization will only make this task trickier, so it’s imperative that awareness and consistent avoidance of these types of logical fallacies become a staple of our political discourse in the coming years.



About the Author

Michael O'Neill '19 is a Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.