Saturday, January 12, 2008

False Premises in Today's Politics

With elections looming, politicians are everywhere. ‘Tis the season.

The last couple of seasons of the The West Wing, may it rest in peace, were devoted to the election process we’re seeing today. First, Santos (played by Jimmy Smitts) ran as an idealistic candidate for the Democratic nomination, while Arnold Vinick (played by Alan Alda) ran for the Republican nomination. Once they both won, they ran against each other. We got to see a lot of inside politics. We got to see why politicians say what they say, what their advisers tell them to tell us, and what moves that we see really mean to them.

Accepting the Premise of the Question

One of the most important issues we saw time and time again was the candidates’ refusal to answer questions the premise of which was decided by the other guy. The reasoning behind it was that, once you accept the other guy’s premise, once you accept the framing of the question, it doesn’t matter what you say, they will win the argument when the day is done.

For example. Leo McGarry, running for Santos’ V.P., is an old hack at politics, having run the country from behind the scenes. But now he’s a politician. He’s supposed to talk to reporters. Here he is being briefed by Annabeth (Written by Debora Cahn):

Annabeth: “Press is here for the Q&A. Now remember, you control the conversation. You don’t like what they ask, don’t accept the premise of the question.”

Leo says, “I’ve been rejecting the premises of questions since the Hoover Administration.”

The two of them now face reporters. Says one, “Mr. McGarry, are you still in AA?”

Leo avoids the question: “Good to see you, Christine.”

The reporter insists, “When was the last time you went to a meeting?”

Leo answers, “I’ve made statements about that before. You should take a look at them.”

Reporter: “Does your cardiologist think you can handle this kind of stress?”

Leo: “My cardiologist has made a statement about that. You should take a look at it. See, what I’d like to talk about is what Matt Santos can do to improve the public schools here in Pennsylvania and across the country.”

Sounds like every other professional politician we know. He evaded the uncomfortable issues, didn’t say anything he didn’t want to, accepted no bad premises, and led the answers to his own agenda.

Later on, however, he slips up:

One Reporter says, “Mr. McGarry, are you finding the campaign trail exhausting?”

“Invigorating, Kevin, thanks for asking.”

“Is Speaker Haffley floating an education issue with the White House?”

“I don’t know what’s going on in the Speaker’s office, but I can tell you that Matt Santos has the most practical approach to improving teacher quality we’ve seen in a long time.”

“Is it similar to Haffley’s plan?”

“The Santos plan is a comprehensive.”

“Why is the President working with Haffley if this is the candidate’s baby?”

“Because the Constitution empowers the President to sign bills into law and doesn’t empower candidates to do anything.”

Annabeth steps in, says Leo has to go. Once they’re alone, Leo says to her, “I accepted the premise of the question, didn’t I?”

In accepting the premise of the question, Leo said his own candidate has no power. That’s a mess-up.

The thing about mess-ups is that they don’t look like mess-ups when they happen. But the rules of the ‘game’ are clear: the second you accept the other guy’s premise, somewhere down the line you will lose the argument. Before we move on to real life, let’s look at one more fictional mess-up from The West Wing.

Santos, a Democrat, keeps losing on defense issues, even though he’s a Reserve Air Force pilot, while Vinick never served a day. That’s because Republicans always have a better image on security issues. But when Santos is called to serve, Santos goes to serve. And suddenly the news channels are filled, day in and day out, with Santos, looking good in uniform, climbing aboard the air-force jet, and flying off.

Suddenly, Santos is catching up to Vinick in the polls. A rattled Vinick loses it for a second when talking to the press (written by Lawrence O'Donnell Jr.) when a reporter asks him if it was a stunt:

“A stunt?” Vinick seems shocked. “No, that was devotion to duty. That’s what makes the American military the greatest fighting force in the history of the world. And I hope Congressman Santos continues to do his duty when I’m Commander-in-Chief.”

It sounds like he jabbed Santos. But he didn’t. In answering the way he did, he accepted the premise that Santos is a military guy, thus giving his opponent more credence. Santos says it best when he watches it on TV: “I’ll take any sentence that has ‘Santos’ and ‘do his duty’ in it.”

Today’s Politics

In real life, we’ve learned to pick up on this kind of dialogue when politicians refuse to answer questions. We’ve learned (hopefully) to pick up on it when people spout talking points rather than real thoughts on TV. But sometimes it’s more complicated than just answering a question. These days, Hillary Clinton has tried to gain ground on the black race issues.

Her problem is that she’s fighting Barack Obama’s premise. Any attempt to go for the ‘black’ issues would immediately give victory in the argument to Obama. She can’t be blacker than him. She can’t understand what it’s like to be black the way he can. He doesn’t even have to say it. With this issue, he doesn’t even have to do anything to win it. Any time Clinton raises the black issue, at this stage of the race while going against Obama, she is losing votes and giving them to Obama.

False Premises in Today’s Politics

We’ve seen how people unwittingly accept other people’s premises when answering questions or when raising issues, but false premises are everywhere. In fact, we take many of them for granted to such an extent that we don’t even see them. And in accepting a premise, we help it along.

False Premise #1: There Are Only Two Real Choices In (American) Elections.

The question is: If you took a second to think about it rather than take it for granted, would you still think it’s true? Since when are you satisfied with only two choices in anything? Do you accept two choices of milk? Two choices of coffee? Two choices of cars? Two choices of houses to buy or apartments to rent?

Is a choice between two things actually a choice in your eyes in anything but politics?

Americans are so finicky, expecting a wide selection in everything they buy. And yet they expect no such choice from their politicians, the people who write the laws and have the ability to send their kids to war.

Two choices? Is that it? Is that the premise you choose?

A good reason to accept that premise is an apparent lack of choice. Third-party candidates never have a real chance. But whoever says that third-party candidates are the alternatives actually accepts the false premise. They are not the only alternative. Which brings us to the next false premise:

False Premise #2: One Party, One Opinion

This premise says that voting a Democratic candidate into office helps the Democratic Party and voting a Republican into office helps the Republican Party. Seems natural and obvious. But it doesn’t have to be true.

If you vote for, say, a Democrat, and it’s good for the Democratic Party, then that man is loyal to the Party and not to you. Voting for a party and not for a candidate means that the entire Party is one choice, one opinion, has one set of rules and one agenda. That’s good for both Parties, but it’s bad for us.

If you come to a candidate from a place that says: If you do the things I like, if you go the way I want, I will vote for you, no matter what Party you come from – in that case, the candidates will suddenly have to suck up to you, rather than their bosses. They will have to do what you say, rather than what their Party says.

They need you. Make them work for it; break Party lines.

If it works, the Parties themselves will do their best to fight it. But they will adapt and change. Because they need your votes and they need your money. At the end of the day, both parties work for you.

It doesn’t matter who’s to blame for the situation (whichever situation it is that bothers you). It doesn’t matter who did what when. Make the candidates take a stand by telling them you’ll vote for them (or not) based on positions you find important, completely disregarding Party lines. Make both Parties work for your vote specifically, creating ‘one Party, many opinions’.

The alternative is to go on accepting the Parties’ premise and going on as before. In accepting the premise that there are only two choices in elections and in accepting the Parties’ premise that there is one party, one opinion, you make sure that the Parties win. One election cycles, the Republicans are on top. Another election cycle, the Democrats are on top. In both election cycles, you’re on the bottom. Just as Leo made sure the other side won when he answered the question, just as Vinick lost the argument the second he accepted Santos’ premise, and just as Clinton is losing the race issue by tackling it. Accept both Parties’ premise, you help them both win. In not accepting the premise, there is a chance that you will win.


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