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Disrupting Democracy

09/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In his youth my father was a Socialist. Toward the end of his life he did an oral history in which he told this story, set during the Great Depression.

He was setting up the chairs for a Socialist meeting. The Communists (sworn enemies of the Socialists) turned up and proceeded to throw the chairs around and be otherwise disruptive. My father, though never a violent man, finally got fed up and threw a chair or two back. At that moment, naturally, the police showed up and hauled him off to jail. (The Commies got away scot-free.)

I was thinking of this story watching news reports of the latest Republican Conservative rhetorical move: disrupting town hall meetings on health care reform by shouting speakers and other audience members down, making it impossible to have a discussion on the topic or to share information about it. It occurred to me as well that that was far from the only non-cooperative form of discourse conservative speakers and writers have been honing for some time now -- just the natural culmination of their project.

Why do they do it -- not occasionally, but as a preferred strategy? I would suggest that abolishing rational discussion is the refuge of two kinds of politicians: those who have nothing of their own to contribute, and those who have contempt for democracy and its practices: totalitarians, actual and wannabe.

The false syllogism is one way to evade the facts. For instance: Major premise: Any form of health care reform means a total government takeover -- "socialism. "Minor premise: The full name of the Nazis was the National Socialist Party. Conclusion: Barack Obama is a Nazi. QED.

Another tactic is simply shouting louder and longer than everyone else. This is their tactic for disrupting discussion in town meetings. (If you want to see the same game as played in a non-town hall setting, watch Elisabeth Hasselbeck on The View -- she has mastered the art.) A sub-version of this subversion is exaggeration - making claims about an opposing position that go far beyond what the proponents of the position say. Barack Obama "pals around with terrorists." You can yell by raising your voice a hundred decibels; you can also yell by exaggeration. Both quash rational exposition of a position.

Closely allied to yelling is the Big Lie. Big Lies worked for Joseph Goebbels and his boss; they work for Rush Limbaugh too. Sonia Sotomayor is a "racist" because she suggests that women of color may see the world through a different prism than white men; Barack Obama is not a native-born citizen, despite public postings of his birth certificate.

All of these can be subsumed under a thuggish logical fallacy, the argumentum ad baculum, "argument by the club." If I swing my bat hard enough, you won't want to mess with me, and I will win. I don't need to have any rationality behind my behavior - just brute force.

Another favorite is the argumentum ad verecundiam, "argument based on shame." This is accomplished by setting up your opponents or their position as contemptible, so that a hearer would be embarrassed to take their side. Women use "empathy" instead of fully human masculine "logic." To oppose the war, or demand justice for torturers, is "treason." Who wants to be a Benedict Arnold?

The Founders, in particular Thomas Jefferson, were aware that, to make the fledgling republic successful, the populace had to be educated, to give them the tools to differentiate between rational forms of argumentation and antidemocratic logical fallacies and other illegitimate means of persuasion. But setting up an educational system is not enough -- especially when "education" is more and more apt to be defined by the ability to pass a cut-and-dried multiple-choice test. (Odd - conservatives favor these too.) We have to become able to distinguish a real argument from a fallacious one.

Finally, one may ask: why do they do it? Why risk identification as an anti-American, a totalitarian wannabe, yes, a traitor - if there exist legitimate and reasonable arguments that can be made for a conservative position? It just wouldn't make sense.

Hmm. Maybe that's it. The Republican Conservatives have constituted themselves as the NO Party -- no ideas, no program. NO is the cry of the Terrible Twos, who want power but don't yet have the linguistic ability to achieve it through persuasive discourse. The Conservative Republican strategy -- stop them from talking or from being heard because we have nothing of value to contribute -- is at best the strategy of the fractious child, at worst the weapon of the club-wielding troglodyte. In any case it is a throwback to immaturity, of either the individual or the species.

Liberals have devised ways to help the economically impoverished. Now we have to figure out what to do about the discursively impoverished. Give them food stamps. Enroll them in Medicaid. Just don't let them take part in any important discussions.