More on straw men

A commenter points to this February Wall Street Journal piece by Karl Rove on straw men.  I know.  The very idea of that person criticizing anyone for slimy rhetorical devices is beyond ridiculous.  But in the interest of fairness, let's discuss it anyway.

I should say first of all (I should repeat actually) that it's not much of an achievement to find "straw men" in anyone's "political advocacy" discourse.  There is after all a rather significant difference between a pundit, writing in the calm, reflective light of reason, and a politician, advocating for this or that policy or action.  While pundits represent ideological points of view, they do so on the assumption (I believe, at least) that the best arguments have compelled them.  Politicians must be content, however, to achieve their policy objectives by moving people to action.  This motivational discourse involves different rules.  A politician, I think, of any variety, can be allowed to paint in broad strokes, especially when it comes to his opposition, without suffering the accusation of using a straw man.  

This genre confusion, I think, is what drives Rove's inane piece.  He confuses the broad strokes of a politician, in particular the use of "some," for straw man arguments.  "Some" may signal a straw man, but it need not.  Rove writes:

President Barack Obama reveres Abraham Lincoln. But among the glaring differences between the two men is that Lincoln offered careful, rigorous, sustained arguments to advance his aims and, when disagreeing with political opponents, rarely relied on the lazy rhetorical device of "straw men." Mr. Obama, on the other hand, routinely ascribes to others views they don't espouse and says opposition to his policies is grounded in views no one really advocates.

On Tuesday night, Mr. Obama told Congress and the nation, "I reject the view that . . . says government has no role in laying the foundation for our common prosperity." Who exactly has that view? Certainly not congressional Republicans, who believe that through reasonable tax cuts, fiscal restraint, and prudent monetary policies government contributes to prosperity.

Mr. Obama also said that America's economic difficulties resulted when "regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market." Who gutted which regulations?

Not naming one's rhetorical opponent in a political speech is not the same thing as a straw man.  And besides, these and the rest of Rove's examples are not straw men, in that there are people, Republican people, who make arguments that the government never ever created one single job, and so forth (see chairman of the GOP, Michael Steele).  Obama's not naming them does not entail he's making them up.

So, I would say, Obama (and Bush, etc.) deserve some leeway in the identification of their opponent, especially in the context of major political speeches.  Does this free them from the responsibility of fairly characterizing their opponents?  Obviously not.  The boundaries of fair play are just somewhat broader.

3 thoughts on “More on straw men”

  1. thanks for addressing these accusations too. thanks for the explanation.

    I agree with you that politicians play with different rules; I don’t think, however, that there’s anything wrong with us trying to point out logical flaws where they are.
    Finding logical flaws in political discourse is not that challenging, so sticking with op-eds sounds good to me.

    The example that sounded to me like a straw-man was this:
    “During his news conference on Feb. 9, Mr. Obama decried an unnamed faction in the congressional stimulus debate as “a set of folks who — I don’t doubt their sincerity — who just believe that we should do nothing.”

    Now, a straw-man should still be an argument. I don’t know for sure if Obama used the above description to make an argument, or it was simply a political jag.

  2. One aspect of the rhetoric of such statements is that by not specifically naming names, these people are being given the wiggle room to back off their own rhetorical positions w/o public humiliation by the POTUS.  One can exemplify an argument which, presumably, could be sourced if it was necessary to do so, but avoid blaming persons in the process while undercutting their argument instead.

    If, indeed, the claim asserted of “some people” is not one that has been adopted, or has only been adopted by fringe extremists, then there seems like a solid basis for making the Straw Man accusation stick. On the other hand, if names could be named, then this technique makes it possible to say, “this argument is stupid,” without also saying, “you are stupid,” even implicitly.

  3. I think you’re right Gary, on both points.  The “some” does give one the wiggle room of not naming particular names, in case one wants the support of those same people later. 

    As you suggest, it certainly bears repeating that politicians can be guilty of the straw man if they attack a view no serious party to the discussion holds, all the while suggesting it’s representative of the opposition view.  We saw this kind of thing all of the time with Bush.  Obama, it turns out, seems to attack views many hold, as five minutes of googling, will show.

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