How should MA Republicans argue with MA Democrats Online?

As the issue comes up sometimes, I wanted to answer following question: “How should Massachusetts Republicans argue with Massachusetts Democrats online?”

It’s a hard question, but an important one for me and my fellow Republicans. Any amount of time spent on the Twitter hashtag #mapoli will show you just how much effort can be wasted on political dialogue with nothing to show for it. Is there anything that can be done? I think so. I will give a quick summary, then the details.

1. Know what an argument actually is, and only seek one occasionally.
2. Seek Democrats who are open to having an argument, and will play by the rules. Build trust with them.
3. Don’t go for the knockout, but instead, try to win on points, often one at a time.
4. As Massachusetts is the most educated American state, elevate, cite evidence, and show respect.
5. As Massachusetts is a deep blue state, an effective strategy is to concede GOP flaws at national level, highlight strengths here, win using non-partisan evidence.

What actually is an argument?

Unfortunately for America, our education system, several decades ago, abandoned the widespread teaching of what was often called “argumentation and analysis.” Yes, some private schools still teach that an argument really is something different than a shouting match, and that many centuries of thinking have yielded structures and methods that are valuable. It isn’t that you are going to hear a lot of people engage in authentic argumentation. (There are many civic associations that stage them, but they don’t get any coverage.) It is that even a basic understanding of this subject pays a lot of benefits.

An argument is a debate about some issue that is worth discussing and where the participants follow some conventions: there are relevant underlying things that you both agree upon, you know what it is you do not agree upon, you make assertions backed by evidence, you take turns in giving reasons for your views, and – critically – you are open to being convinced that you were wrong in your original assertion. (This isn’t a definitive list, but it’s good enough for our purposes.)

Other than the agreement to go back and forth and keep advancing the argument, I want to touch upon two key areas: shared agreement, and willingness to be proven wrong.

The first is that there must be some shared views underneath. So, if someone wanted to debate what to do next in the war in Afghanistan with me, but thinks we should never have gone there and President Bush is a war criminal for starting it, there is no way we can have a useful debate. It would be useful for two people who supported the war, but had different views of what to do next. Why? Because the focus will be on that next step. In my first example, it doesn’t do the listener to the argument any good to have my ideas about working with the provincial leaders up against someone who says, “We shouldn’t have gone there in the first place.” And that’s another key point: an argument should have value for the audience.

Here in MA, it might seem that Republicans and Democrats don’t share views. But that’s a view that comes from partisan media. I find that my Democratic friends have similar views as I on a variety of basic things, even though we disagree on a lot of other things. So we may disagree on the value of a particular government program. But we would agree that if the program is run poorly and wastes money, that’s a bad thing. We might disagree about the value of public sector unions, but we might agree that their interests sometimes diverge from the public interest.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some Democrats that have radically different views than we do, where it is very hard to find common ground. No problem! Never argue with them. If you can’t identify any source of agreement, don’t engage them. It is a waste of time.

One last word on the issue of “premise”. Saying you agree on something doesn’t mean that you share political premises. I can argue about a public sector union issue without necessarily endorsing the value of those unions. Yes, some debates assume their value as a precondition, and I won’t participate in those. I do have some friends that believe that any agreement of views ahead of time, or any small concession in an argument is somehow accepting the left’s “false premises.” I have several friends who think this way. And it can be a fine line between accepting something in the service of keeping the argument productive and agreeing to something that you don’t believe in. However, if you always are on the side of conceding absolutely nothing, then you will never – repeat, never – have a meaningful argument with a Democrat.

Second, you must be willing to be proved wrong. No, not proved wrong about your core beliefs. But about the issue at hand. It is that, if, and only if, convincing evidence was provided that was worth accepting that showed you were wrong, that you would accept it. For example, if I said that a new regulation was harmful to our state’s economic growth, and credible evidence showed that this particular regulation didn’t harm growth, I would say, “OK, I admit it. This one didn’t harm us.”

How can you find Democrats willing to play by the rules?

Sure, there are lots of partisan maniacs on their side also. Worse, in the places you might first look, all you see might be people who are not going to be worth debating. However, I have found they are out there. Since they are firmly in control of our state politics, there are many Democrats who are actually quite normal. How can you tell? I look at someone’s material online, such as their Twitter history. If they always pick the least charitable explanation for what a Republican is doing, avoid them. If their attacks on Republicans are more numerous than praise of Democrats, avoid them. If they have no party position, no political expertise, and no status in any other field, ignore them. (Meaning they have to have something to lose by acting badly in public. Some childless activist living in his parents’ basement may feel no compulsion to show respect.) Having said all that, I generally find someone worth arguing with several times a year.

When you do find someone, look to build trust first. An argument involves trusting the other person to give and take and show respect. I think it is a good thing to start the relationship by finding something that you really agree with, and just like or favorite it.  You are planting a seed for the future, and you need to cultivate good Democrats as political friends. It’s also OK to admit that maybe we Republicans aren’t right 100% of the time and that yes, their complaint about what we did yesterday did have some merit. You don’t want to start off with an indictment. It may be that you build trust for a while, but don’t have a real argument soon. That’s totally fine.

Winning on Points

Probably the biggest mistake I see people make in political arguments is someone going for the knockout. They have some factoid or newspaper article that should, in their minds, knock the other person to the canvas, who will stay down rather than keep fighting. But this almost never happens, even if you have a fantastic piece of evidence. It’s also the wrong mindset.

I think the best strategy is to win on points, as you can in boxing. Jump around, throw a few punches here, ride with a few punches taken there, and take pride in coming out slightly ahead at the end. I understand that’s not what Fox News advertises as winning a debate. But you are as likely to learn how to be a good debater by watching Fox as you are to learn how to be a good fighter watching professional wrestling.

If you can’t take pride in a very small victory against a Democrat in the public square, then you are simply never going to be happy as a Republican advocate in this state. I have had many arguments with Democrats and I have racked up a lot of tiny victories – and a small number of defeats – and I feel good about that record. (Yes, most of my time is arguing with my fellow Republicans, but that isn’t the focus of this article.)

Here is some advice that has helped me: it is better to pull back and win a minor point than to overreach for a lot of points and fail. Also, you will always do better with precision: assert something smaller that you can prove, rather than something bigger than you can’t totally prove.

Specific Advice for Massachusetts

Massachusetts is the most educated state in America and our political culture, compared to that of other states, reflects that. It isn’t that you have to sound like William F. Buckley in a debate, but I wouldn’t recommend sounding like Sarah Palin. Cite evidence. No – not from some right-wing blog, but from reputable sources that a Democrat would read. (If you can only cite evidence from the opinion page of the Boston Herald, don’t bother.)

Also, there is no avoiding that the national GOP is very unpopular here, and television brings the shortcomings of the party into people’s living rooms on a regular basis. The good news is that while many Democrats here dislike Republicans a great deal, it is the ones outside of Massachusetts that they are upset at, not us. I have often said, “They are mad at Senator Cruz, not Representative Winslow.” In fact, other than Scott Brown, I don’t think most ordinary registered Democrats could name any active Republican legislators unless they were in one of those few districts. Also, our elected leaders here are a far more moderate and well-spoken group than who you see lampooned on The Daily Show.

You can concede failings at the national level to build trust that you aren’t some right-wing maniac from Wyoming, but a reasonable Republican from this state. You can say that while lots of Republicans on TV are excited about a government shutdown, that you think that’s a mistake. Or that even though gay marriage isn’t popular at the RNC, the Republican rank-and-file here are pretty much OK with it. In general, it is very effective to say that you are unhappy with the behavior of men like Todd Akin, but very happy with the good work being done by Representatives Leah Cole, Keiko Orrall, or Ryan Fattman. It lets the Democrat you are talking to relax a bit, and take you more seriously.

Lastly on this, I highly recommend trying to win with non-partisan pieces of evidence. That sounds weird, but you can win arguments on the role of government just by showing the malfunctions in our current government. You can win with individual pieces of evidence that a Democrat would accept, even if they don’t agree with the top-level point you started with. There are lots of issues like this where I have won arguments against Democrats with this approach, such as the civilian flaggers issue, secure communities, the outside money in the Boston mayor’s race, the teacher evaluations fiasco, the free school lunch issue in Boston Public Schools, or the failure of the MA Health Connector website. If your evidence is merely some “obvious” belief that only Republicans have, you aren’t likely to win. (Such as the widespread view Republicans have that there is lots of voter fraud, even though I almost never hear credible evidence of that. Yes, we have had some here in MA, and I am happy to see Republicans use that, even though the kind of fraud we have seen here recently isn’t related to the Show ID to Vote proposals they are usually advocating with this evidence.)

Closing Thoughts: Destructive Quarrels

The great conservative religious thinker Father John Neuhaus used to say, “The hardest thing to achieve is disagreement. Most of what passes for disagreement is actually confusion.” So yes, you will see lots of things online that aren’t arguments, but destructive quarrels that have no value. And if you just want to yell at someone or be snarky, that’s your decision. (But I will point out that you are re-enforcing our terrible online political culture.) Also, when the target doesn’t respond to your tweet of attack, you have to wonder what you gained. “Calling people out” is a cheap thrill.

So, for my fellow Republicans who want the good feeling of having a productive argument against a Democrat, I hope this helps. The first time you feel like you won some minor argument fair and square, you will feel great about it.

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