The Politics of Politics

I don’t remember why I took Debate 101 my sophomore year of high school.

I’m not an enthusiastic public speaker nor was I inclined to become one. Perhaps I was interested in learning advanced debating techniques. Then I’d be ever triumphant in the important debates of daily life:

“You think you deserve that last piece of pizza? Let me tell you why you don’t.”

The explanation may be much simpler:

  • my experience suggests that teenagers aren’t terribly bright
  • my later experience as a junior and senior suggests that sophomores aren’t terribly bright either

Entering Debate 101, I was:

  1. a teenager and
  2. a sophomore.

The evidence, however circumstantial, is sufficient to convict.

If I was interested in learning debate technique, I was disappointed: the debate class wasn’t designed to systematically instruct students to taking apart their own position, reassemble it into a stronger position, and then use their new strong position to destroy their opponent’s position. This debate class was designed to cull skilled debaters out of the general student body who would then go on and compete in regional and state debate competitions. Some technique was dispensed in miserly bursts but mostly it was one instruction-free speaking assignment after another. Those with innate debating instinct went on to join the school team with all the glory that bestowed (not much). The rest of the class had to live with disappointment (again, not much).

One debate format we were taught, Lincoln-Douglas (LD), was roughly similar to this format laid out by Wikipedia:

Time (minutes) Abbreviation Speech Description
6 AC Affirmative Constructive The Affirmative reads a pre-written case.
3 CX Cross Examination The Negative asks the Affirmative questions.
7 NC (1NR) Negative Constructive (and first negative Rebuttal) The Negative (almost always) reads a pre-written case and (almost always) moves on to address the Affirmative’s case.
3 CX Cross Examination The Affirmative asks the Negative questions.
4 1AR First Affirmative Rebuttal The Affirmative addresses both his/her opponent’s case and his/her own. This speech is considered by many debaters to be the most difficult.
6 NR (2NR) The Negative Rebuttal The Negative addresses the arguments of the previous speech and summarizes the round for the judge.
3 2AR The Second Affirmative Rebuttal The Affirmative addresses the arguments of the previous speech and summarizes the round for the judge.

The LD format is adversarial: one debater speaks in favor of a proposition and their one speaks against. Points are awarded by a judge and the winner is the debater who wins on most points. I don’t know the specific scoring criteria my debate class used. I do remember the essence: if, in the course of your debate, you conceded that any of your opponent’s arguments had successfully debunked your own, you lost points. No points were given for being agreeable. Points were only given for being disagreeable and the more disagreeable the better.

Being a mid-tier debater, I was pitted against a offensive lineman from our high school football team. I have linebacker height but not linebacker bulk: my debate opponent (we’ll call him “Brett”) outweighed me by 30-60 pounds. If our confrontation had been physical, I would have been dead. But I figured I was a better debater than “Brett” so I thought I could best him at LD. Though we weren’t taught killer debate techniques, I had enough peasant cunning to throw “Brett” off. When our face off came, I threw all sorts of rhetorical tricks at “Brett” to make him concede that his positions were erroneous. I managed to be on offense even when I was technically on defense. My cross-examination peppered “Brett” from all sides. I’m sure my mid-tier dazzle was sufficiently dazzling.

It turns out being an offensive lineman is good preparation for LD debate. “Brett” did not counter-punch much and his counter-punches were ineffective but, in the end, it didn’t matter: Brett stolidly held his ground against my onrush and conceded no points. I conceded no points because I was on offense the entire time. So it was a draw. We both got an A.

The argumentative hypothesis of human reason advanced by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber suggests that, as it goes in LD, it also goes in life. The purpose of human reason is not an disinterested search for truth.  Its purpose is the intensely interested search for victory and, as in LD, to win that victory, you don’t yield on points. We reason to generate argument and weaponizing that argument is the highest priority of that reasoning. If reason produces argument that wins through an accurate approximation of the world as it really is, truth and victory align. If victory requires argument that’s more truthful than factual, truth and victory may never align.

Politics is the division of power. It divides through fragmentation and consolidation. Fragmentation creates political opportunity by opening cracks in the division of power that can be widened until they break off and you can grab your share of the fallout. Consolidation forecloses political opportunity by sealing cracks in your division of power so others can’t redistribute power away from you.

A uniformly condemned human trait is “confirmation bias“. Confirmation bias is commonly portrayed as a “bug” in our mental software since our first instinct is to search for evidence that reinforces our existing worldview rather than evidence that disproves it. But, if the argumentative hypothesis is valid, confirmation bias is no more a bug than “Brett” holding his position in the offensive line against a pass rusher is a “bug” or “Brett” holding his position against my cross-examining aggression. In the process of dividing power, cracks in your means of dividing power are bugs since they provide opportunities for others to increase their slice of power at your expense. Since argument is just one more means of dividing power, its consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds but its inconsistency is a danger to minds of any size and the power they command.

Violent argument is the polar opposite of verbal argument but the logic of seeking to fragment in the power of others while consolidating your own is the same for both verbal and violent argumentation. The nineteenth century French military theorist Ardant du Picq demonstrated that most battle casualties happened when one side breaks and runs then when both sides hold their position. When one side breaks and runs, the other side can run them down and easily kill them from behind. If both sides stand and fight, casualties are lower since they face each other’s front.

The victor in battle was the side that kept together while making the other side fragment. Sometimes the winning side uses a ruse to cause fragmentation: one favored tactic of cavalry generals from William the Bastard to Genghis Khan was feigning retreat before suddenly turning and attack them now that, in their rush to run down a fleeing enemy, the enemy was out of position. At other times, one side’s patience gave out and a sudden event, rumor, or tremor of emotion caused them to fragment in opportune ways. Physical annihilation, where you have to kill each enemy fighter one by one, is rare and when it happens, it’s as draining for attacker as it is for attacked: infamously, the refusal (or inability) of Japanese soldiers to run away from the overwhelming American firepower advantage turned the War in the Pacific into a nightmarish swamp of attrition. Psychological breakage usually occurs long before physical breakage.

In the Congressional Debate format, the winners are those participants who give the best speeches under the constraints of Robert’s Rules of Order, the legislative procedures that hypothetically govern procedures in the United States House of Representatives. Students who gain the floor are able to introduce legislation following the rules of the House. Other students can then speak for or against the bill during the time allotted. The bill then receives an up or down vote.

During the one Congressional Debate I participated in, one student introduced a bill to increase funding for hydroelectric dam construction. He gave a passionate speech in support of his bill. His main argument was that power generated by such dams was more environmentally friendly than power generated from oil or coal. His argument was constructed to fend off challenges from the right. It was reasonably well-fortified against attacks from that vector. However, the structural weaknesses of his position suggested the obvious counter-ploy. I took the floor and made the easy kill by lackadaisically punching through his wide open left flank by decrying the “terrible environmental damage” wrought by hydroelectric dams. Since, even back then and even in the Most Conservative State in the Union™, students are indoctrinated by education and media into reflexive left environmentalism, his bill was overwhelmingly voted down.

Normally practiced debaters don’t throw up gimmes that let you feign retreat only to suddenly turn on them once they’re out of positon. However, this was a melee between students who’d never encountered each other before and never encountered each other thereafter. They were also mostly 1) teenagers and 2) sophomores with all the limitations those states imply. They were like settled farmers fighting as infantry who encounter steppe nomads for the first time: the nomads ran the obvious ploy, the farmers fell for it, and slaughter ensued. However, such tactics don’t work against entrenched infantry schooled in the cunning of the steppes and they don’t work against entrenched debaters schooled in the cunning of rhetoric. Facing that sort of opposition, the gap opened by running to the left while remaining anchored on on the right opens you to the deadly counter-charges of You-Were-For-It-Before-You-Were-Against-It-Flip-Floppery inconsistency, Tribute-That-Vice-Gives-To-Virtue hypocrisy, and Profit-Over-Principles/People deceit, among others. Though any argument is designed to win and not to find truth, it’s always a bad argument to say so explicitly. The best argument is arguing that your argument’s purpose is to personify Truth and that the opposing arguments are either false or, more insidiously, deliberate falsifications driven by political calculation.

In the future, it may even become fashionable for the fashionable to attack their enemies over “cognitive bias” instead of traditional inconsistency or opportunism. This attack says that not only is an argument stupid and wrong but that the opponent’s brain is physically incapable of devising any argument that isn’t stupid and wrong. Opponents will look at any picture that shows any sign of panic in your eyes and claim that they have discovered that you suffer from fatal cognitive dissonance, a rumored defensive reaction by the human mind to stiffen the ranks of its own thoughts to better defend against greater truth.

Minds change but do so infrequently. The instinct to hold your position in the face of events and arguments challenging it is strong and rightfully so. Political transformation usually results when power shifts away from one argument and passes to another. People usually have an agenda. They need only the right opportunity to pursue it. When power comes their way, it may seem like a revolution in thought where minds have changed. However, it’s not the balance of belief that changes (at least in the short run) as much as the balance of power tilting suddenly toward one position where previously it tilted toward another. When something that was previously improbably or even impossible becomes probable and even possible, it’s not because people didn’t want to do the thing before but, simply, through shifting events, now they can do it.

The state of Utah is currently on fire. Like any event, this is both an opportunity and a danger to any number of political positions. Most political arguments raised up to cope with this burning are those that already exist and, hypothetically, those that attack hit multiple opposing arguments at once. Here’s an example posted to on June 24, 2012 with the ambition to be an argument to end all arguments:

“The Salt Lake City Tribune reports that more than 9,000 people have been driven from their homes by a wind-whipped wildfire started by two shooters at landfill popular with target shooters who won’t face any charges because they were not breaking any laws. The fire was the 20th this year in Utah sparked by target shooting where low precipitation, dry heat and high winds have hit the West hard, exacerbating the risk that bullets may glance off rocks and create sparks. Despite the increasing problem, local agencies are stuck in a legal quandary — the state’s zealous protection of gun rights leaves fire prevention to the discretion of individuals — a freedom that allows for the careless to shoot into dry hills and rocks. When bullets strike rock, heated fragments can break off and if the fragments make contact with dry grass, which can burn at 450 to 500 degrees, the right conditions can lead to wildfires. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has called on Utahns to use more “common sense” in target shooting urging target shooters to use established indoor and outdoor ranges instead of tinder-dry public lands. “We can do better than that as Utahns,” says Herbert, calling on shooters to “self-regulate,” since legislation bars sheriff’s officials from regulating firearms. “A lot of the problem we have out here is a lack of common sense.”

Hypothetically, if not in practice, this argument has breathtaking potential: it attacks the dumb rubes that support the other side, those that oppose legislation to deal with anthropomorphic global warming, those that support the right to keep and bear arms, those that want dual use of public lands (roughly 70% of the state of Utah is owned by the Federal government), and Truth and Unreason itself. If backed by sufficient power, the supporters of this argument could disarm the “wrong” voters, restrict recreational activities on public land, impose what they believe will “stop” anthropogenic global warming, and empower Truth and Reason itself. Left unsaid is that they could do anything else they wanted to as well, since the accomplishment of all the former goals would rid them of any division of power held by those that oppose other political agenda items.

The “question” of global climate change, for example, is actually five questions:

  1. Is the earth getting warmer?
  2. If so, what causes global warming?
  3. Should something be done about global warming or its causes?
  4. If something is done about global warming, what other agenda items can be piggybacked on the something done?
  5. If other agenda items are piggybacked on a solution to global warming, who ends up ruling whom?

Some people view such questions as questions of truth or of morality or even of survival. Whether they are or not is a matter of argument and as such, whatever their truth, morality, or necessity, they are inescapably political questions. Behind any question is one fundamental question, infamously posed by Lenin as: kto kogo? (“who, whom?”).

Who rules who for whom?

Whatever the virtues of an argument, only a fool will accept it without considering the division of power undergirding it or the division of power it will bring about if its premise is accepted. However, we have a bumper crop of fools, they’re filled with arguments of all stripes, argument is politics, and the only escape from politics is death.

1 thought on “The Politics of Politics”

  1. Good post. Re confirmation bias, I would note that this phenomenon is well-known to accident investigators. (“We’re ready to take off on runway 31. Wonder why the runway lights aren’t on? Oh yeah, there was a notice about some electrical work being done at this airport. Yeah, that must be it.”)

    In politics, though, the damage caused by confirmation bias tends to be inflicted on people other than the bias-holder, at least in the near term.

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