Monday, June 20, 2011


Have you ever wanted to know what constitutes a Straw Man argument? Well wonder no more.

A few weeks ago I penned this op-ed on GOP budget myths for our local paper, the Bakersfield Californian. This morning a friend called to let me know that this was the op-ed response. It's too funny (and a bit sad too when you consider that this kind of argument passes for serious public debate in many corners of America).

With that, I think it's important to take a quick look at what the Straw Man argument is all about ...

The key to making a Straw Man argument is getting people to believe that you're addressing the key points of your opponents argument when, in fact, you've misrepresented, taken out of context, or oversimplified the original arguments (creating grotesque caricatures of your opponent helps the cause too). Put more simply, you recreate your opponents argument, but do so in such a poor manner that it's easy for you to take it apart.

In many cases it's easy for those making a Straw Man argument to distort or poorly recreate their opponents position because they don't really understand the points made in the first place. Or they have no real understanding of the topic.

While no one really knows the origins (etymology) of the Straw Man argument, it's often tied to the idea of scarecrows and dummy figures, which are created to give the illusion of reality. These recreations, as we know, are picked apart (by crows, as it were) and easily tossed around because they're poor substitutes for the real thing.

The overall goal of the Straw Man argument is to give the impression that you've covered the points when what you've actually done is distorted or trivialized the original issue(s). If you do a real good job you can get your opponent to respond to your poorly made argument, which sucks your opponent down an intellectual cul-de-sac, where facts are redirected, innuendo replaces substance, and the original points are lost.

The classic Straw Man argument might go like this:
Person A: Our prisons are stuffed with petty criminals who drain our financial resources. We need to decriminalize the actions of those who use small amounts of pot to help ease prison budgets.

Person B: Legalizing drugs will only lead to more crimes by those looking for drug money. More crimes means you will be mugged and robbed. Be afraid of supporting those who want to legalize drugs.
In the example above, if you get into a debate with Person B you have to go off track to explain that your original argument is tied to public finance and the decriminalization of small, petty users. Person B, on the other hand, will have none of it. That's the goal. They will try and paint you as a supporter of drug users and crime. Points of fact are lost to ideology and point scoring. Policy is undermined in the long run.

In the case of my op-ed article on GOP budget myths the author who responded to my piece begins by ignoring the very specific numbers I present on the sources behind our budget deficit. He then says plainly "Both the GOP and the Democrats have annual deficits. The GOP is the party trying to change that behavior." And, like a bad horror movie, the Straw Man begins to grow ...

In the process the author ignores how President Reagan tripled our national debt, how President Bush doubled it, and that President Clinton left budget surpluses to his successor. He also ignores what I had to say specifically about the origins of our budget deficits today. And on it went ...

If anyone were to respond point-by-point to the arguments made by the author they would be drawn into a cul-de-sac of ignorance, where political grandstanding and point scoring drowns out the real issues that need to be addressed. Fox News does this. Rush Limbaugh does this too. Glenn Beck is a master of the tactic.

That many Americans don't understand the tactic is most unfortunate.

 - Mark  


Bird loving tree hugger said...

I appreciate that Mr. Drew cannot weave a tale with the facts, because they would be devastating to the Republican mythology. I just bought Dan Quayle's book, "Standing Firm" at the Goodwill so I can better understand "the other side". Keep your friends close and your enemies closer!

Landon said...

To really comprehend the genesis as well as application of the "Straw Man" Argument, I suggest you pay closer attention whilst shaving.

BTW, re 25th ID Combat Leader Drew? You sadly could not shine his brogans. And that comes from a fellow "Tropic Lightning" VN Vet FWIW. (of course, not 'worth' much to the likes of YOU I'm quite certain).

Frank said...

Sometimes presidents are the beneficiary of a strong economic growth cycle, like Eisenhower who was criticized for playing too much golf, while the decade of the 1950's turned in the strongest perfomance in economic history, in spite of 90% top marginal tax rates on individual income(not because of 90% marginal tax rates). Clinton also benefited from having a presidency positioned to benefit from the final 8 years of a 20 year upswing in the economy, benefiting from tremendous productivity gains due to the technological revolution. His policy of increasing marginal tax rates was succesful during that period because of a strong economy, it didn't cause the strong economy. A three year bear market though was handed to Bush II as the unsustainable Clinton economy fell into an inevitable recession. Deflation at that time was a real concern which is why we needed stimulative policies to avoid a more serious downturn than what we had from 2000 thru 2002. Both the Fed and the legislative and executive branches of government had to realize this. Goverment policies only affect the economic growth cycles, they doesn't cause them. The Soviet Union collapsed because it didn't understand that basic principle.