Monday, April 28, 2008

How about a "good argument"?

Just a while ago, on the comment thread of some posting on his blog Holmes & Co., opinion columnist and editor, Rick Holmes voiced his frustration with the seemingly relentless demographic analysis that has been brought to bear on the Democratic primary contest between Obama and Clinton.
There’s something demeaning and disrespectful in all the demographic slicing and dicing perpetrated by the consultants, pollsters and media analysts. “Why can’t Obama connect with white working-class Pennsylvanians?” “Why can’t he “close the deal” with older white women?” We don’t hear it as often, but similar questions could be aimed at Clinton: “Why doesn’t she appeal to young people and African-Americans and folks with graduate degrees?” These questions always have an undertone of racism and sexism that —even if it’s true about some voters— is insulting to this voter.

I have to say I share in that frustration. White voters, black voters, old and young, male or female, college educated and not. Every contest result thus far has been dragged onto the table and vivisected for "voting tendencies." It's sorely tempting to point a finger at one side as they have tried to read more meaning into one contest result over another. Maybe that's where this will end up—the whole race might end up being about the race as some demographic dry run —it's not like I can control it, but I guess I'd like to nudge discussion in a different direction.

I remember arguing with my dad about politics once (actually we did it a lot). To take the use of understatement to a ridiculous extreme, let's just say my dad was no fan of Bill Clinton's. The only thing that could get him more riled than talk about Bill and Hillary was talk about Ross Perot. Let's say he wasn't a fan of Perot's populist protectionism either. In the particular argument I'm remembering my dad had returned to this theme. We were on the phone and he was on the subject of Perot. He'd run through his usual critique, but then he went on to fulminate on just how much Perot really bugged him —how only an idiot —a complete moron —only a fool could have been swayed by Perot's blathering pseudo-folksy talk —and those silly diagrams! Only a complete and utter moron!

In this one particular discussion I recall I chose a Socratic approach. I asked my dad why this upset him so much —this "moronic appeal" of Perot's.

Well —isn't that obvious?, he said, Perot stole his votes from George H. W. Bush! Obviously his message was an appeal to Bush voters more than Clinton voters! He corrupted the results. He gave the election to Clinton!

Maybe you can guess my response.

So you're telling me, Dad, that without Perot messing things up, Bush would have taken the Complete and Utter Moron vote?

Silence on the phone...

OK, you got me.

I guess I bring up this story for a couple of reasons. One is that my dad hardly ever admitted when I "got him" so I've been gloating about that particular instance ever since, about fourteen years now. The other is to point to the danger of letting the political debate devolve into discussions of demographics and electability —and the projected voting tendencies of arbitrarily defined groups.

There's a few things I learned from my father —before I started proving how much smarter than him I was. He used to love "a good argument" —the kind of discussion where you stated your case and defended your principles and where you heard the other side too. In those "good arguments" —even when neither side convinced the other of anything—you learned something. You refined your own thinking and you maybe found some respect for the other point of view. (That hardly ever came up when we argued about Clinton —I don't think those were our "good arguments" — but that's a whole other post). My dad and I agreed that that "good argument" was an ideal worth holding and sharing, that it just might be the heart of our country's democracy.

My dad also taught me a couple of things about what is currently being discussed as "elitism" —how the integrity of a "good argument" just might be the best defense against it. My dad was an engineer and, in his line of work, he used to tell me, he could as easily find himself working all morning with a back hoe operator and all afternoon with a college president. He told me how he had encountered fools in board rooms and wise men on the construction site, and vice versa. And he'd found them all out with a willingness for a "good argument."

That willingness wasn't always necessarily born of an open mindedness, per se —or even what you would call tolerance. Sometimes it was quite the opposite —but it was never patronizing. It was a willingness to challenge and confront differences with conviction and candor.

As I think of it now I realize that this was probably why he admitted that I "got him" that night on the phone those years ago. He'd stopped defending his own thinking and he'd started second guessing the thinking of others. He had strayed from the argument of why he thought he was right and he'd wandered into wondering how his side might have won. By his own standards, he had lost that particular argument with his son and he knew it.

The funny thing was I could tell that in some small way it pleased him that he had.


Hewy said...

This post reminds me of a thing I saw after the 2000 election. Nader was speaking at a college and one of the students got up and asked him if, by virtue of taking votes away from Al Gore, he felt responsible for the fact that Bush was president. Nader calmly and candidly stated that he placed the blame for Bush's presidency squarely on the shoulders of those who voted for Bush.

The thing we have to remember is that the people who frame the discussion (in terms of whose candidacy has a negative effect on some other candidacy) are trying to sell us pimple cream and deodorant. And if they can influence our vote along the way, so much the better.

Tom Driscoll, Profiled! said...

I've gone back and forth in my mind about third party candidacies over the years. I do believe there is a place in the debate for independent voices. And I suppose this post is more about the debate than the contest. I think an organized third party that engaged the public more broadly would be a real welcome improvement to the American political scene.

I think there's complaint with each of the three that ran in 2000. My complaint with Ralph is that he tends to reappear every four years. There are other offices in government on the federal, state and local level. I would like to see him more engaged in advancing the idea of a third party and less convinced of his own individual messianic purpose.