Research News

Vanderbilt professors pen ultimate guide on political argument

Two Vanderbilt University philosophy professors who are passionate about the importance of political argument to democracy have written a step-by-step guide that blasts many of the so-called debates in current media.

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse are the authors of Why We Argue (and How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement (Routledge 2013).

“[rquote]We live in an era in which shouting matches about political matters and social questions are nonstop on the Internet and 24-hour news programming,”[/rquote] said Talisse, who is a professor of philosophy and political science. “It’s time to start paying explicit attention to the ways in which arguments in political context might work well and ways in which they might fail.”

Aikin, an assistant professor of philosophy who earned his doctorate at Vanderbilt, said that a successful argument would be one in which individuals could express their views and receive constructive critical feedback. “That does not mean that the opposing parties resolved their differences,” Aikin said.

Talisse noted that a political discussion can be full of heated, angry exchanges and still meet the specifications for a well-run argument.

One of the criticisms that these professors have about many talk radio and cable news programs is that there is relatively little time for making the positive case for the commentator’s viewpoint. “Instead, the segment is focused on deriding or dismissing the opposition as uninformed, silly or downright wicked,” Talisse said. “That is what we would describe as an argumentative failure. These are maneuvers presented as argument to try to convince the audience that there is no intelligent opposition to the commentator’s opinion. If that is indeed the case, then there is no argument to be had.”


One of the book’s chapters, “Pushovers,” gives examples of so-called argument-imposters used by both former President George W. Bush and current President Barack Obama to misrepresent their opponents’ viewpoints. In early 2004, Bush was dealing with an increasingly unpopular U.S. invasion of Iraq. Bush said the following during remarks in the White House Rose Garden:

“There’s a lot of people in the world who don’t believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly.”

The professors write that Bush made the suggestion that his critics were “cultural and religious bigots,” but he fails to identify anyone who would have said this. The authors add that they could not find reference to anyone who said that. They label this strategy “the hollow man fallacy.”

Another example is an address by Obama to honor the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth. During this speech, Obama defended the use of large government spending to stimulate the struggling economy. Obama said:

” … Such knee-jerk disdain for government — this constant rejection of any common endeavor — cannot rebuild our levees or our roads or our bridges. It cannot refurbish our schools or modernize our health care system, lead to the next medical discovery or yield the research and technology that will spark a clean energy economy.”

The professors write that the trouble with Obama’s statement is that his main opponents did not take the view that there should be no governmental response to the problems Obama mentions. They contend that Obama “weak-manned” his opponents by selecting the least defensible lines of argument to rebut. They note that political consultant Karl Rove responded forcefully in the Wall Street Journal.

The book emphasizes the vital component of well-reasoned arguments in a flourishing democracy and examines the impact of an audience watching and listening to political debates. The authors identify a series of strategies that are common with politicians in which something is presented to mimic or look like an argument when, in fact, it’s crowd-pleasing.

“Scott and I think that argument is something that people do naturally as we try to hold people responsible and accountable for what they do,” Talisse said. “Democracy complicates that picture. In high-stake politics, where there are elections and lucrative positions to be won, it’s easy to lose sight of the rational persuasion element of argument and go simply for the favor of the voters.”

Aikin and Talisse were motivated to write their book after developing a column about public discourse and reasoning in political debates for a popular website called 3 Quarks Daily. They hope it will benefit, in particular, students enrolled in introductory courses on logic and critical thinking, but they have strived to write for a general audience.