Ad rockstarium

I think it's worthwhile to keep track of the ways the sides in a debate try to paint the character of the other.  Sometimes, it is simple observations about what kind of person would hold such and such a view, other times, it's about what kind of person would be blind to evidence of such and such degrees of obviousness.  Often, it's mere rhetorical window-dressing, and often enough, it's direct ad hominem.  I've been keen on the recent presidential character-painting.  Romney's a robot (a very funny meme) or vulture-capitalist, Obama's either a socialist-totalitarian or a decent but unqualified doofus.  These all seem fine to me, at least in the sense that they're at least capable of being put in the service of evaluating the character of the person who's to be the President of the United States and the Commander in Chief.  Who occupies the office matters, so character evaluation is relevant. 

One line of argument that I don't see the point of, though, is what I've come to call the ad rockstarium argument against Barack Obama.  Mark Steyn at National Review Online runs it in his recent "Our Celebrity President."  Here's the basics from Steyn:

Last week, the republic’s citizen-president passed among his fellow Americans. Where? Cleveland? Dubuque? Presque Isle, Maine? No, Beverly Hills. These days, it’s pretty much always Beverly Hills or Manhattan, because that’s where the money is. That’s the Green Zone, and you losers are outside it.

As I can gather, here's how the argument runs:

1) The President goes to fundraisers in California and New York, not Middle America.

2) You live in Middle America

So: The president isn't interest in you or your money. Well… maybe your money.  How much you got?

Steyn goes on:

It’s true that moneyed celebrities in, say, Pocatello or Tuscaloosa have not been able to tempt the president to hold a lavish fundraiser in Idaho or Alabama, but he does fly over them once in a while.

That's right!  He went to the 'fly-over' line.  OK, so if I'm right that some evaluations of character are relevant, does this one count as one?  I don't think so, as the issue isn't whether Obama is popular and adored but whether he's the kind of person who can be trusted with policy decisions.  I think the best that this line of evaluation can do is say that Obama is a rockstar, and rockstars do things differently from you…  I'll be trying to keep up with more of the rockstarium argument as the campaign goes on.  Any help on seeing how the line is relevant?  Is it a form of upside down ad populum: he's not like us, so he's wrong?

About Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.
This entry was posted in Ad Hominem, Ad Hominem Abusive, Appeal to the People, Barack Obama and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Ad rockstarium

  1. John Small Berries says:

    As far as I can tell, it's just another incarnation of the same old "elitist" accusation which the Republicans happily trot out every Presidential election.
    At least this time they can't ask "Which one would you rather have a beer with?" to promote the idea that Romney's just a Regular Guy, given his religion's proscription against alcohol.

  2. Saikin says:

    Hi John, I think you're right about this being an extension of the broader populist rhetoric of the Republican party.  But it may have another edge, as I think that there's the "he's a costal elite" element to it, combined with a "he's a narcissist" element. (For sure, they're related)  I will say, though, if the candidates are going to be graded on the elitism or narcissism scale, I'm unsure the Republicans will like the outcome.

  3. Scott,
    It does seem ad populum to me, at least if we examine the quoted portion of the argument literally and without poking into any unstated claims (disclosure:  I didn't read the link, just what you quoted) the person advancing the argument was making.
    What might the unstated claims be?  Well, one seems to be that Obama will feel beholden to the rock-star interests that give him money.  Another one (closer to the argument you identify) is that Obama simply cares more about the rich and famous (and elite-coastally located) than he does about the people he allegedly dismissed as mired in "guns and religion."
    I'm not trying to defend the argument here so much as I'm trying to understand what Steyn is intending to convey.  (And as Saikin points out, Republicans might not be enamored of a similar standard being applied to them.)  I will confess that as somebody who was born and raised in flyover country,* the ad populum "elitist" argument has an appeal to me even though I know its fallacious.
    *I was raised in Denver, although I don't live there any more.  I'll admit that Denver is in a sense a regional capital, and some of its residents probably look down on the flyoverable parts of their own hinterland.

  4. Saikin says:

    Hi Pierre,  A nice point about how some ad populum arguments, even when revealed as suffering from relevance problems nevertheless have their appeal.  I think you're on to something about the 'beholdenness' issue here, namely, that those who go to X for campaign money will be beholden to X when it comes to policy.  Of course, this version of circumstantial can be turned around — I'd take money from iterest groups only if I knew beforehand that I'd represent their interests anyways.

  5. Aaron says:

    I think of Steyn's argument as an (overdone, four-year-old) red herring:
    1. The President is running for office.
    2. He's acting like a celebrity in the following ways…. (Series of examples relying upon causal fallacies, e.g., "Celebrities sometimes enter public venues through kitchens. President Obama sometimes also enters public venues through their kitchens. Therefore the President is a celebrity.")
    3. [Implied] What sort of fool would want a mere celebrity be their President?

  6. "Of course, this version of circumstantial can be turned around — I'd take money from interest groups only if I knew beforehand that I'd represent their interests anyways."
    True enough.  I might push it a little further and say that if there is indeed a bi-coastal celebrity "interest," and if that interest is contemptible, then the donations are a bad thing either way.  It might make Obama more beholden to that "interest" than he otherwise would be.  Or it might be an augury of his alignment with that "interest."
    As you might infer from my use of scare quotes, I doubt whether celebrities constitute an identifiable "interest," although the ones Obama supposedly consorts with probably share a liberal (broadly defined) view of the world.
    (By the way, great blog.  I found it through Aaron's (also good) "Stopped Clock" blog.)

  7. GF-A says:

    Very interesting!  The italicized argument in the OP doesn't seem to me to necessarily have anything to do with celebrity or rockstardom; it strikes me as the following:  so-and-so only runs in group X, which is very different from your group, and thus so-and-so does not share (and perhaps cannot grasp) many of your interests and values (since you should not vote for someone who does not share many of your interests and values).  And I think this is not a bad argument.
    The further accusation (is that the appropriate word?) of celebrity/ rockstardom is, to me, an extra dig, and might be thought of as a terriible analogical argument, perhaps?  (Lindsey Lohan, Steven Tyler, etc. spend lots of time in Manhattan and LA, and they are horrible people; Obama spends lots of time in Manhattan and LA, thus he's horrible too.) 

  8. Saikin says:

    Aaron,  I think we're in agreement that the argument runs as a form of ad hominem, but we're, I think, at odds about what trait Steyn is running the argument off of.  For sure, celebrity status is the focal point, but I wonder whether that is taken as a sign for Steyn and his readership, as a sign of other more easiliy identified vices.
    Pierre, I don't think we need to identify which way the causal arrows go between Obama's policies and those who support his candidacy to see how Steyn's argument goes:  his audience will take is as bad for Obama either way, yes?
    GF-A, it looks like you're more with me noting that the argument from celebrity is supposed to be an argument from some other vice that celebrity is supposed to be a stand-in for.  But I don't see yet how the association with Lohan does the work here, as Obama's only Lohan-related vice is smoking.  And am I right he quit?

  9. Evan McMurry says:

     
    I think the Rock Star argument (of which the best example is Rove's "President Cool" ad) is meant to attack Obama's favorability ratings, which measure how much people like him, as opposed to his approval ratings. Conservatives wholeheartedly believe that the nation was snookered by Obama's charisma in 2008, and that voters ended up voting in a slew of policies that they didn't actually want. This is the third and I think most widely-held of the right's character assumptions about Obama, in addition to socialist/doofus: that he's a fast-talker, and he bait-and-switched the country in '08 with Hope and Change. 
     
    Conservatives are still up against this problem. Obama's approval ratings are underwater on most issues, but his likability remains high. The problem the GOP keeps coming back to is: how do you run against somebody people like?
     
    The ad rockstarium is an attempt to puncture this likability. The implication is, however much you may like Obama, he doesn't actually care about you, he cares about his rich friends; he's pulling one over on you. He fooled you once in '08; do you really want to be fooled again? To the extent that this is effective, it could cause voters who like Obama but are unhappy with the economy to finally settle for the latter half, thinking they've been charmed by someone who wasn't ever on their side. But to the question of what the characterization of Obama has to do with his policies, the answer is nothing, which is the point conservatives are trying to make: that his celebrity functions precisely to cover up his actual aims as president. They simply think they're pointing that out, and they really don't understand why it isn't obvious.

  10. John Casey says:

    Nice analysis.  My favorite: "He cares about his rich friends."  This certainly makes sense of the rockstar analogy, but not the socialist-communist-fascist anti-capitalist accusation.  I suppose one must cast a wide net.

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