Generalissimus

In honor of Lincoln's birthday, a discussion of logic.  The other day on the Political Animal blog of the Washington Monthly, one of my favorite liberal blogs (it's a good blog, and it features a real philosopher), I encountered the following:

THE GOP MAINSTREAM…. Given the attention of late on the Republican all-tax-cut plans on the Hill, I thought it was pretty obvious what constitutes the GOP "agenda" when it comes to economic stimulus. And yet, John Cole flags this interesting complaint from Real Clear Politics' Jay Cost.

Who's arguing that "tax cuts alone" will solve this problem? Even if some are, is this the median position on the Republican side? Is this the position of the more moderate members of the GOP Senate caucus like Lugar, Voinovich, and Murkowski? How about moderate House Republicans like Kirk, LoBiondo, and Castle? We might count it as bipartisanship if Obama had picked up a few of them, but he didn't.

Cost was referring to a comment President Obama made during his press conference the other night, when he said, "[T]ax cuts alone can't solve all of our economic problems." To Cost, this was a straw-man argument, since it doesn't reflect "the median position on the Republican side."

I guess it depends on the meaning of "median."

In the House, 95% of the Republican caucus — 168 out of 178 — supported an all-tax-cut alternative to a stimulus plan that included spending and tax cuts. In the Senate, 90% of the Republican caucus — 36 out of 40 (with one abstention) — did the exact same thing. We can quibble about where the "median" is, exactly, but with these ratios, there are only so many ways to stretch the definition of the word.

Indeed, Cost's post identified six GOP lawmakers who, he thought, would be likely to reject such an all-tax-cut proposal. Of the six "more moderate members," half voted with their party in support of a plan that wouldn't spend a dime, and would rely exclusively on tax cuts.

What I find especially interesting, though, is that Cost not only wasn't aware of this, but he assumed that even if some Republicans supported this approach, it must be unfair to suggest that such an idea was part of the Republican Party mainstream.

In other words, Republican lawmakers have gone so far around the bend, they're surprising their own supporters.

This raises an interesting question about how one can honestly and fairly represent one's "opponent."  One annoying thing about some op-ed writers and many bloggers is a tendency to use a very general term to refer to their opponent.  "Conservatives," they'll say, "believe x, y, and z."  X, y and z will often turn out to be silly, but perhaps true, of someone who fits in that group.  I find such employment of general terms (they're not generalizations–those involve inferences from the particular to the general) very often inaccurate and for that reason dishonest.  This is especially true of blogging, when one can provide all sorts of evidence about the beliefs of one's opponents.  I think it is also especially true of op-eds, where the bar should be set much higher in that newspapers have editors.  For this reason, I bristle when I read this kind of thing (from none other than George Will):

Certitude of one flavor or another is never entirely out of fashion in Washington. Thirty years ago, some conservatives were certain that their tax cuts would be so stimulative that they would be completely self-financing. Today, some liberals are certain that the spending they favor — on green jobs, infrastructure and everything else — will completely pay for itself. For liberals, "stimulus spending" is a classification that no longer classifies: All spending is, they are certain, necessarily stimulative. 

And some paragraphs later:

Today, again, we are told that "politics" has no place in the debate about the tripartite stimulus legislation, which is partly a stimulus, partly liberalism's agenda of social engineering and partly the beginning of "remaking" the economy. 

Surely a man with an Ivy League education can find it in him to name one representative person who asserts this.

It turns out that such characterizations are straw men–or rather, to be precise, hollow men.  They are hollow because they are so very general.  In the second of the passages above, some liberals might be guilty of wanting to engage in social engineering, but so does everyone, including the author of Statecraft as Soulcraft

There has to be a name for this kind of move.  Its generality suggests straw man, so does it's role in criticism, but I think it might deserve its own special name.  Any suggestion?

2 thoughts on “Generalissimus”

  1. I think Cost’s complaint is very interesting. What does charity demand when your opponent is a strawman, but a living breathing one? The idea of an all-tax cut plan is absurd. But they are mouthing support for it, but that support is political not based on economics or any other account of reality. One could easily come up with a more sophisticated approach that would still sit well with general conservative notions. Are you obliged to even put this on the table if they don’t? Those, of course, were the ideas Obama was fishing for in a bid to co-opt — partly because they might work, partly for his own political gain. The GOP refused to provide any real options likely because they remember a version of this political trap from the Clinton/Dick Morris years. But if they have alternative rhetorical reaosns for not making the strongest case in their favor, do we have an obligation to skethc it out for them?

  2. I just noticed it, but something about the way that Will writes reminds me of the way my middle school history textbooks were written: an authoritative, god-like narration with no evidence. Maybe it can be called the “God-Like Narrator” Fallacy, since Will, criticizing “certitude”, writes with more certitude than almost any other op-ed writer. As some people in the past have written, God can only know universals. Maybe this is George Will’s problem.

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