July 21, 2018

Rhetorical Fallacies: Straw Man

In good argumentation, a person who is making an argument will summarize or restate a claims of their opponents and then respond to them. (In great argumentation, an arguer will summarize and restate their opponent’s position to make sure that they are genuinely talking about the same things, and potentially work toward consensus. But that’s a separate point.) In a straw man argument, an arguer summarizes or restates a claim that their opponent does not actually hold. They attribute that false claim to their opponents and then respond to that. The straw man argument can be an extreme version of an opponent’s claim, a misleading interpretation of an opponent’s claim, or even just something the arguer has made up. The person making the strawman argument is able to “win” against the false claim because it’s not a real claim. The opponent doesn’t really hold the position. Very often, no rational person holds the position. So the person making the strawman argument has defeated an argument, but it’s not actually an argument that existed in the world prior to them making up the argument just to defeat it.

The idea behind the name “straw man,” by the way, is something like, “you create a fake person, filled with straw, and then fight it.” It’s an easy fight to win because it’s not a real person.

President Trump released a string of tweets on Jan. 12, 2018 to defend himself from a claim that he had described African nations as “shithole countries,” questioned why the United States would want to accept immigrants from Haiti, and said the U.S. show desire more immigrants from Norway. Amidst tweets where Trump claimed his language was “tough” but not derogatory, he tweeted:

The Democrats’ position on DACA negotiations is, of course, irrelevant to the question of whether on not Trump made disparaging remarks about African nations and immigrants from majority-black countries, and described a desire for immigrants from majority-white countries. The opposition of “our Country” to DACA is also highly loaded. Trump is indicating that the people most directly affected by DACA are not part of “our country.” These people, who were brought to the United States as young children and who have lived in the US for most of their lives, are literally part of our country. Indeed, the point of DACA is to offer a pathway to American citizenship to these people, which would formally make them part of our country. But the opposition of “our Country” to DACA casts people who benefit from DACA expressly as not part of “our Country.” Trump furthermore claims that the people he includes in DACA are benefitting at the cost of people he includes in “our Country,” potentially inciting conflict between “our Country” and (primarily Latino) immigrants.

The strawman, though, occurs in Trump’s claim “Democrats want to stop paying our troops and government workers in order to give a sweetheart deal, not a fair deal, for DACA.” This would be a valid claim if and only if Democratic negotiators had proposed to eliminate funding for the military and all Federal employees (presumably even members of Congress?). Of course, no one in Federal-level mainstream American politics--Democrat, Republican, or otherwise--has ever made any such proposal. To do so would be absurd in every way imaginable. At a purely symbolic level, no legitimate politician could take such a position because the military is so beloved in the American electorate. But it would also be disastrous economically because of the huge role the military-industrial complex plays in the American economy, and administratively because of the gargantuan amount of work done by Federal employees to manage Social Security, justice, food safety, air traffic, interstate commerce, and on and on. It would be even more ridiculous for Democratic members of Congress to negotiate on behalf of a very small number of people (who cannot, at present, vote), at the cost of the voters in their constituencies who would lose the economic impact of military service, military contracts, and military installations, and who would lose all the recourse to Federal services that they currently enjoy.

So, yes, Trump is right. The Democrats would be wrong to demand that the US stop paying the military and Federal workforce in order to make a sweetheart deal for DACA. But the Democrats aren’t demanding that. No one is. It’s a stupid position. So Trump is right against a stupid argument he fabricated, not an actual argument being made by his opponents.

With more careful argumentation, we can get to a valid basis for Trump’s argument. Democrats, at the time of the relevant negotiations, had threatened to vote against increasing the Federal debt ceiling if DACA was not re-authorized. In 2013, Republicans refused to increase the Federal debt ceiling as a means to defund the Affordable Care Act. This resulted in the Federal government furloughing non-essential employees for more than two weeks, including many military servicemembers. This was politically and economically problematic. It was unpopular at the time, and resulted in a downgrade of the Federal government’s rating for its worthiness to borrow money. So, here is how Trump could have constructed a valid argument about the Democrats’ position:

The Federal government needs to borrow money to continue to operate. In order to do so, Congress must pass (and I must sign) a bill to allow the Federal debt ceiling to be raised. Otherwise we cannot borrow more money. If the Federal government cannot borrow money, it will not be able to pay workers. Therefore, the government will shut down until the debt ceiling is raised. In the past, Republicans have used debt ceiling negotiations as a way to make demands for their own legislative agenda. For instance, in 2013, Repulicans in Congress refused to raise the debt ceiling for a brief period as a way to try to defund the Affordable Care Act. This resulted in a Federal shutdown, which I supported. Here’s some of my tweets from 2013:
I tweeted that last one on Sept. 20, 2013, but I've deleted it from my Twitter account. Huh. Anyway, in 2013, the Republican decision not to raise the debt ceiling, which I supported resulted in a government shutdown. As part of this, Federal workers and military servicemembers were furloughed. So we literally stopped paying our troops (until they were given backpay later on). I also claimed the United States would benefit from a shutdown earlier in 2017:
I tweeted that last one on May 2, 2017, but I've deleted it from my Twitter account. Huh. Anyway, Democrats now want Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to be re-authorized. They are threatening to vote against raising the debt ceiling as a negotiating point if DACA is not re-authorized. If the debt ceiling is not raised, the government would again shutdown until it is raised. This would likely result in military servicemembers and other Federal employees being temporarily furloughed. This negotiating strategy was wrong when the Republicans used it (and I supported it in 2013 and 2017), and it’s wrong for the Democrats to use now. #DisentangleDebtCeilingNegotiationsFromOtherIssues

Clearly, this valid argument would take several tweets to express. It would, however, avoid the straw man argumentative fallacy, and provide a legitimate space to discuss substantive issues. Also, Trump would have to not delete his past tweets when they conflict with his current actions and positions.

Though, to be fair, it would still be a nonsequitor to the context in which the straw man occurred--Trump’s slurs against majority-black countries and expressed preference for majority-white countries--and the opposition of “our Country” to DACA would still be problematic as an incitement to race war.


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