One of the most common requests from participants in this club is to learn how to win political arguments. As a Republican at most schools, you will get lots of practice. Remember that our standard, against which all political opinions will be measured, is Utilitarianism.[1]


Understand that Democrats, with their roots in the socialist and union movements of the early 20th century, see themselves as the party of the “little man” and protector of the underdog. This identity clashes with the fact that there are more millionaire Democrats than Republicans and that Democrats have an average higher annual income than Republicans[2].

Democrats get their greatest political support from three groups:

1&2: Unions and trial lawyers who provide an outsized amount of the money.[3]

3  : African Americans, who by voting 80-90% Democrat, constitute a critical voting block. This means that far from being a party of the common good, Democrats are the party of special interests.

This gives them a huge anchor to drag around intellectually and they usually have to go through extraordinary mental manipulations[4] to stay in any argument.

The key in an argument therefore, is to stay on the “common good” standard. Your ultimate goal is to get to the point where you are not arguing “right versus wrong”, but what are the trade-offs for any given position. There, the data is on our side.

Remember that Democrats are basically wrong in every policy area. After all, if they were right, we would adopt their position. When you listen to them, however, their arguments, at first, often seem persuasive. This means that there must be something wrong in their argument somewhere. Spotting that fallacy can be quite tricky at times. Play “Spot the Fallacy” whenever they offer their opinion.

Starting PointsEdit

Begin at the beginning and go on ‘til you come to the end: then stop.--The King in Alice in Wonderland.

It takes discipline to prevail in a political argument. Keep the above quote in mind as a reminder that good arguments have a structure. You must pay attention to the order and cohesion of each element and not get onto tangents. The single most important part of any discussion occurs at the very beginning:

What Question should we be asking?Edit

Pick any issue, and the most critical element in its discussion will be the original premise. Take this example:

Dem: "Bush’s war in Iraq is morally wrong and we should get out."

This is a common Democrat statement and one’s first response must be to decide where you want the conversation to go. How do you feel about this particular Democrat and how aggressive do you feel?

Option 1Edit

You like this Democrat and feel that a real discussion is possible. It will be necessary to establish a clear “original premise” that will take the conversation away from partisanship. Start with the “morality of war” as this will allow you to work your way over to a better starting point:

Response: So, are you a strict pacifist and therefore against all war? If so, what is your religious faith?

If Buddhist or a pacifist Christian faith, I express my respect and ask if they would volunteer as a battlefield medic as pacifists have done in past wars. Discussing how one differentiates high moral ground from cowardice can be very entertaining. If they are not a pacifist, then one assumes they are just against this war. What is it about this war that is uniquely objectionable?

Dem: Well, we entered it on the false premise that there were weapons of mass destruction

This is a premise to be avoided as the Democrat wants to go to the emotionally gratifying “Bush lied and people died”. This will be a hopeless discussion as none of us, except of course the Democrat, can know what Bush knew, or thought he knew, when he ordered the invasion. Redirect the discussion.

Response: I agree that no WMD’s were found. But that was only one of a number of stated reasons for the invasion. Another was that Hussein was an evil tyrant who had murdered an estimated 300,000 of his own people and invaded two neighboring nations.
Dem: Well, that’s not reason enough to start a war.

The discussion is now has an original premise that can be debated: when should the US use its military in foreign affairs? This is an old and important debate that can be summarized as “fortress American” versus “America the beat cop” (or World Police). It can branch out into a unique part of the Bush Doctrine[5]: pre-emptive war. Ask your Liberal colleague if she thinks wars for humanitarian purposes are different from wars resisting aggression.

Response: If Iraq’s 300,000 victims weren’t enough, how about Rwanda’s 900,000 victims over 3 months? Clinton could have stopped that genocide with very little effort, although the region had no geopolitical significance like the Middle East. If 300,000 in Iraq isn’t enough, but 900,000 in Rwanda is enough, how about 500,000 as a national cut-off for involvement? Are purely humanitarian causes sufficient or do we also need involvement of a national interest?

You can now frame a good question as your starting point:

What would you have us do in Darfur[6][4]?

Option 2Edit

You don’t like this Democrat, you’re in unsympathetic company and you feel irritable. In this case, you could use a sharper, more attacking style and just state the original premise desired[7]

You: "The question is NOT 'why are we in Iraq?' The question is 'why are we in Iraq now?' Your question depends upon the illogical premise of a 'sunk cost'"[8]

It’s always good to bring principles wrapped in a tidy phrase to an argument. They should always be used with a tone of voice[9] that implies that any well-informed person would know this. When someone uses one with which you aren’t familiar, be sure to sure to admit your ignorance immediately and humbly ask for the meaning of the phrase. This will partially regain your position by showing intellectual honesty.

There are a number of reasons why we should stay in Iraq now.

  • We broke it, we own it. What kind of country doesn’t take responsibility for its actions, even if they were a mistake?
  • We have vital interests in the Middle East, including oil and Israel. How did it go the last time we let Germany and Japan ensure their own energy supplies?
  • If we leave, there will be a humanitarian disaster.
  • Better to fight Al Queda there than here.[10]
  • We don’t have any really compelling reasons for leaving. Our all-volunteer army is proud of their mission and morale is holding up well. Our losses, while tragic, are sustainable. The costs are acceptable relative to our historic spending on the military.

If the Democrat is just on a partisan rant, they will quickly break off the conversation and leave. Call that a win. If they are not, at least the premise starts at a good place. It’s the place the Republican presidential candidates start.

Option 3Edit

This is not to be tried until you have some experience. It would be safe to try amongst Republican friends or in a refereed setting like the Republican Club. It is a subtle argument that requires the participant to put herself in the position of the President. Until you have to make a consequential decision based on partial data, you can’t realize how hard it is to make decisions that irreversibly affect others.

YOU: I think you’re being overly harsh in your judgment. I think Bush’s position in the fall of 2003 represents a good example of Jonah’s Dilemma[10]

If Winston Churchill had convinced his countrymen to pre-emotively attack Nazi Germany in the 1930’s, thereby preventing World War II, would he have been vilified for initiating an “unnecessary conflict”? Truman faced this dilemma: invade Japan with the anticipated hundreds of thousands of casualties or drop the nuclear bomb? If Clinton had responded aggressively to the Al Queda attacks in the 1990’s, would we have had 9/11? Churchill said, “Hindsight will make a statesman out of any schoolboy”. You can now frame a good question for your starting point:

What would you have us do about Iran’s building a nuclear bomb?

Other ExamplesEdit

As we go through the major policy problems in federal politics, pay attention to starting with the right question. Here are some examples where it is important to specify what one is talking about:

  • Health policy: health versus health care versus health insurance. See Health, Health Care, and Health Insurance
  • Education: "Are schools for job skills, intellectual enrichment or citizenship"
  • Social Security: "Why do we entitle old people as opposed to poor people"
  • Affirmative action: "Why do we entitle by race versus socioeconomic status"

Exercise 1Edit

Discuss this letter to the Editor of the Boston Globe (8/17/2007) following an article about a reserve soldier who was being sent with her unit for a one year deployment to Iraq.

What has our country come to in sending the single mother of a 13 year old boy and a 14 year old girl to serve a year’s combat duty in Iraq? In the last presidential election cycle we were bombarded with claims of so-called family values. What a betrayal our president is wreaking on our nation in sending single parents of teenagers to fight an undeclared war against a people who have not attacked us and were in no position to do so. More shock and awe. This time it’s on us.--Emil

Standard of Comparison?Edit

It is common for Democrats to make very confident statements that they just know must be true because, well, they care so much that it just has to be so. Whenever anyone “knows” that she is right, it is usually because she travels in such a homogeneous circle that her assumptions have never been challenged. A good way to approach this kind of person is to look for something measurable in their statement with which to get the discussion on a quantitative or at least a semi-quantitative footing.

On the campaign trail, Hillary Clinton has appealed to the anti-war base in her party by asserting that we are “losing the fight to Al Queda and bin Laden” in Afghanistan(WSJ 8/13/07).
”Now, we talk a great deal about Iraq and not enough about Afghanistan, where our failures have squandered much of what our military accomplished and limited the reach and positive impact of President Karzai's moderate, democratic government." (Nov, 2006).

The key to debating these kinds of charges is to understand that “losing” and “failure” are quantitative terms that imply comparison to some standard. What is that standard? In an insurrection-type civil war, one could, for example, look at two parameters: terrorist incidents and economic conditions.

  • In the Pashtun province of Khost, for instance, there have been no conventional attacks on Coalition or Afghan as of August of this year.
  • Of the 67 IED explosions, all were upon “soft” civilian targets and 51 IED’s have been reported by locals before detonation.
    • Compare the 58 resulting deaths in Khost, population of one million people, to the murder rate in American cities of the same size in 2006:
      • San Jose 29
      • Indianapolis 108
      • Detroit 37
  • Economically, Afghanistan has always been one of the world’s poorest countries. Foreign policy experts have stated that success would be to raise the country’s per capita GDP to that of Bangladesh’s $419/year, within the next 20 years.
  • The presence of paved roads now linking the major cities is a national first.
  • Mobile phone cards have dropped in price from $40 to $3 over the past few years and are adding subscribers at the rate of more that 2 million for 2007 and three million for 2008.
  • Banks are opening branches throughout the country with thousands of new accounts.

This rapid improvement is national with the exception of Helmand Province and a few bad districts of Uruzgun, Kandhar and Laghar. This is much like the security in any number of third world countries and seems rather like modest success.

So when Mrs. Clinton, or anyone else, makes sweeping statements about anything, one’s first response must be: "what is the standard of comparison?"

Exercise 2Edit

Discuss the following quote about the present Bush administration:

We have a culture of corruption, we have cronyism, we have incompetence. I predict to you that this administration will go down in history as one of the worst that has ever governed our country.--Hillary Clinton (All Headline News)

Define TermsEdit

Examine the statement below, which is standard for socialist thinking:

Our nation has seen periods of dramatic poverty reduction at times when near-full employment was combined with sound federal and state policies, motivated individual initiative, supportive civic involvement, and sustained national commitment. In the last six years, however, our nation has moved in the opposite direction. The number of poor Americans has grown by five million, while inequality has reached historic high levels. -By The Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty April 25, 2007

On the first pass who could disagree? Who could possibly be against poverty reduction? To disagree is to appear to be for poverty. It is this kind of political argument that requires very tight discipline on the terms used in the discussion. Each of the underlined words requires definition:

Poverty:In this article[11], poverty is defined as a family of four living on $19,971 per year. If 20% of the world lives on $1 per day and the next 20% lives on $2 per day, is anyone in America poor? How long does one have to be at this income: 6 months, one year, 5 years? Americans have exceptional financial mobility, mostly up. Should college students be considered poor? They certainly don’t have any money.

Periods: Please give some modern examples.

Dramatic: Please give in percent. Sound: Hide your wallet. Motivated: what could this possibly refer to that has anything to do with government? Supportive: I’ll bet they mean government. Sustained: What do you mean, longer than 1967 with the start of Johnson’s “Great Society”? Six: Really, it precisely started with the inauguration of a Republican president? Please, you’re embarrassing yourself. Number: This is a manipulation of statistics that is quite dishonest. Inequality: This seems to make the argument that if there are more rich people, it must cause more people to be poor. Of course the opposite is true. Rich people in America can only make everyone around them better off, because they have to do something with all that money.

So the seemingly innocent statement is quite meaningless. The one thing it does do, however, is give the author a way to mask his intentions for what he really wants: more government everywhere, all under the guise of reducing poverty. You can read his full argument at American

Logic and the Science of Argument Edit


We normally think of an argument as the process of trying to persuade someone that our opinion is correct. There is, however, a formal discipline of logic whereby one tests whether or not a conclusion can be fairly reached, based on the original premises. A conclusion derived by logic can only be criticized in 2 ways:

  1. One or more premises is false
  2. Premises do not lead to the conclusion

Essential Logical FallaciesEdit

There is a lot to learn in this area , but below are some essential logical fallacies that come up again and again. See the complete list of Logic and Logical Fallacies

  • Argument by Analogy
    • Analogy is not logic but an explanation, thus it cannot prove anything
  • Ad hominem (attack the person rather than his argument)
    • Hypocrisy is irrelevant. If I say that theft is wrong, you do not refute my argument by showing that I am thief, nor by showing I am a murderer.
    • If Hitler says murder is bad, he is not wrong because he is Hitler. If Mendel says murder is good, he is not wrong because he is Mendel, he is wrong because he is wrong (aka it is immoral)
    • "What do you know about politics? You're too young to vote!" is an ad hominem
    • "He's physically addicted to nicotine. Of course he defends smoking!” is as well
    • "You say the gap between the rich and poor is unacceptable, but communists also say this, therefore you are a communist" is ad hominem
    • "You say the gap between the rich and poor is unacceptable, but communists also say this, and they believe in revolution. Thus, you believe in revolution." is too.
  • Cause and Effect
    • Make sure this comes in the right order
  • Correlation is not Causation
    • The fact that two events occur at the same time does mean that they have to be related. For example, it has been shown that the stock market goes up with women’s hemlines.
    • A study shows that going to sleep with your shoes on is positively correlated with waking up with a hangover. Do not conclude one causes the other, instead, a third cause (drunkenness) may cause both
    • Global temperatures have gone up as pirates declined over the past centuries. Do not conclude: "Pirates cause global warming!"
  • Oversimplification (multiple partial causes of which 1 is selected)
  • Non Sequiturs (Does not follow)
  • Affirming the consequent (if I am a goat, I have hooves; I have hooves, therefore I am a goat) if false.
  • Denying the antecedent (if I am in Rome, I am in Italy; I am not in Rome, therefore I am not in Italy)

Other TechniquesEdit

  • Lying
  • Changing the subject
  • False choices
  • Straw man argument
  • Choice of time frame
  • Opinion masquerading as fact
  • Authority/majority as truth
  • Pseudoexpert / celebrity
  • Over emphasis on the available
  • Emotional overweighting / underweighting
  • Proving a negative

Making an Argument "Sticky" Edit

At most educational institutions, most of our arguments need to be won from the minority position-- there are simply more liberals, communists (in denial or no), and socialists (again, many in denial) than there are Republicans. Thus, we need to be able to make our points in a way that is fast and memorable, otherwise they'll be drowned out by the eleven other voices at the table. (Of course, a good appeal to authority by the teacher may drown them out anyway.) A good way to do this is outlined in the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

In the book, the authors outline the six characteristics of a "sticky" idea, one that will be remembered and likely acted upon after an argument is over. For Republicans, making a good argument is as forgettable as it is noble. You have to make it sticky. It must be at least 3 of the following 6, preferably more or all:

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credibile
  5. Emotional
  6. Narrative

A good one pulled directly from the Made to Stick web site comes from Mark Twain:

A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.
While such a statement would need further explanation relating it to your point, it will stick in people's heads. It fits all six of the criteria listed above.

Summary of "Evaluating Political Discourse"Edit

It may be worth it to print this on a notecard and carry it around in your shirt pocket until you know it by memory.

A. Starting Points

  1. What Question should we be asking?
  2. What is the standard of comparison? (if any quantitative data is used.)
  3. Define the terms used.

B. Logic and Arguments

  1. Ad Hominem (attack the person not their argument)
  2. Analogy is not Proof, it is Illustration.
  3. Hypocrisy is Irrelevant (ad hominem tu quoque)
  4. Coincidence is not Causation (Post Hoc ergo Proctor Hoc)
  5. Non Sequitur

C. Other Techniques

  1. Lying
  2. Changing the Subject
  3. False Choices
  4. Straw-Man Argument
  5. Choice of Time Frame
  6. Opinion Masquerading as Fact
  7. Authority/Majority Opinion does not Establish Truth.
  8. Pseudoexpert/Celebrity
  9. Overemphasis on the Available
  10. Emotional Overweighting and Underweighting
  11. Proving a Negative

D. "Sticky" Arguments

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credibile
  5. Emotional
  6. Narrative

Exercises Edit

How would you respond to each of the following examples?

  1. The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those in the shadows of life--the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.
    --Hubert H. Humphrey, 11/1/77
  2. This president (G W Bush) hasn't asked anyone affluent to sacrifice anything. Hasn't asked a thing of us, except maybe "to stay alert”. The President took a surplus and made it into a deficit, took a surplus of goodwill, made that into a deficit. And who sacrifices? The troops in Iraq, the people on the bottom are losing Medicaid, jobs.
    --Al Franken, Nov 19, 2003 speech at the University of Missouri-Columbia
  3. Think if you're going to do a movie about Reagan you do it about the fact that he created the huge deficit, that he armed the mujahadeen, that he armed Saddam, that he armed Iran, he armed 2/3s of the Axis of Evil, he funded terrorists in Central America, he was in my mind a terrible president.
    --Al Franken
  4. I'm very proud that the first bill I had the opportunity to sign into law as President was he Family and Medical Leave Act. No parent should ever have to choose between work and family; between earning a decent wage and caring for a child.
    --Bill Clinton
  5. You need to know that a member of Congress who refuses to allow the minimum wage to come up for a vote made more money during last year's one-month government shutdown than a minimum wage worker makes in an entire year.
    --Bill Clinton
  6. You can't say you love your country and hate your government.
    --Bill Clinton 1995
  7. The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one's country deep enough to call her to a higher standard.
    --George McGovern
  8. Middle-class people are spending more hours on the job, spending less time with their children, bringing home a smaller paycheck to pay more for health care and housing and education. Our streets are meaner, our families are broke, our health care is the costliest in the world and we get less for it. The country is headed in the wrong directionfast, slipping behind, losing our way, and all we have out of Washington is status quo paralysis. No vision, no action. Just neglect, selfishness and division.
    --Bill Clinton, 1992
  9. There's just no such thing as truth when it comes to him. He just says whatever sounds good and worries about it after the election
    --Bill Clinton Source: as presidential candidate describing his opponent, George Bush, Sr. (Quoted in the American Spectator, 10/28/92)
  10. They have taken us much farther down the road toward an intrusive, 'big brother'-style government -- toward the dangers prophesied by George Orwell in his book '1984' -- than anyone ever thought would be possible in the United States of America.
    --Al Gore
  11. In my opinion, it makes no more sense to launch an assault on our civil liberties as the best way to get at terrorists than it did to launch an invasion of Iraq as the best way to get at Osama bin Laden,
    --Al Gore
  12. While President Bush likes to project an image of strength and courage, the truth is that in the presence of his large financial contributors he is a moral coward - so weak that he seldom if ever says 'No' to them on anything - no matter what the public interest might mandate--AL Gore 1-15-04
  13. Even as we celebrate our religious liberty today, killing in the name of religion goes on all around the world. Throughout history, religious wars have always been the most brutal and cruel and merciless.
    --Al Gore, Religious Freedom Day speech, Richmond, Virginia, 14 January 1994
  14. I was raised in a tradition that honors the establishment clause, and I think that puts an extra obligation on those who serve in public office, especially in a constitutional position, to refrain from implying some special guidance by virtue of their relationship to God or religious tradition.
    --Al Gore, interview with U.S. News, 2000
  15. Our government needs to close down Guantanamo and the two dozen secret detention facilities run by the United States as soon as possible to demonstrate clearly our nation's historic commitment to protect human rights.
    --Jimmy Carter, Atlanta, 6-7-05
  16. Do you know what the basic Republican anti-inflation policy has been? To put people out of work. Cooling down the economy, they call it, because that sounds nicer. I say to you that any economic policy that sees virtue in unemployment is morally and politically and intellectually bankrupt.
    --Jimmy Carter 8-23-1976
  17. The greatest challenge is the growing chasm between rich people and poor people not only inside of a country but rich nations and poor nations. There has never been an Administration (Bush 2) in Washington before in history that has so dramatically favored the extremely rich people in this country at the expense of poor and working class families. Every major tax change has been to take taxes away from the rich and put it on the poor and working class people. And this, I think, was vividly demonstrated when you saw the aftermath of Katrina. It just shows what's always been there. And that is that poor people are the ones who suffer most.
    -- Jimmy Carter 11/9/05 CBS News
  18. Republicans have no ideas, they don't even pretend to. All they can say is, in effect, "It can't be any better, so why worry about the election? Why worry about the government?" And they imply that somehow or another we ought to fear progress, or fear the future. But Americans have never feared progress and we've never feared the future. The American dream is based on the belief that with hard work and good government we can build better lives and build a better nation for ourselves and for our children.
    --Jimmy Carter, 10-19-1976, NYC
  19. Those of us who believe in the right of any human being to belong to whatever church he sees fit, and to worship God in his own way, cannot be accused of prejudice when we do not want to see public education connected with religious control of the schools, which are paid for by taxpayers' money.
    --Eleanor Roosevelt
  20. The only thing these tax cuts will stimulate is campaign contributions from fat cats.
    --Senator Robert Byrd.
  21. I agree with Mr. Bush that values are important. But it's important that our leaders demonstrate those values from the top. That means those of us who are elected to positions of political leadership have to reflect those values ourselves.
    --Dukakis in first presidential debate 1988
  22. Well, (you give) no answer to those 37 million people, most of them members of working families who don't have a dime of health insurance and don't know how to pay the bills if their kids get sick at night. I was in Houston on Tuesday meeting with a group of good citizens, working citizens. All of them with little or no health insurance. One of them was a father who had been laid off a few months ago and lost his health insurance. Has an 11 year old son and can't let that son compete in sports and Little League, because he's afraid he's going to get hurt and he won't be able to provide health insurance to pay those bills. My state just became the only state in the nation to provide for universal health care and we did it with the support of the business community and labor and the health care community and with virtually everybody in the state.
    --Dukakis in 1st Presidential debate 1988
  23. Poverty in the United States is far higher than in many other developed nations. At the turn of the 21st century, the United States ranked 24th among 25 countries when measuring the share of the population below 50 percent of median income.
    --By The Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty, April 25, 2007
  24. Inequality has reached record highs. The richest 1 percent of Americans in 2005 held the largest share of the nation’s income (19 percent) since 1929. At the same time, the poorest 20 percent of Americans held only 3.4 percent of the nation’s income.
    --By The Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty, April 25, 2007

Footnotes Edit

  1. Discussed in Political Ideologies and the Purpose of Government, this is the standard of: "The greatest good for the largest number of people, with the least harm to the fewest number of people." The actual details are somewhat more complex (i.e. proper application has some subtleties) but this is the general idea. Wikipedia
  2. Source Needed
  3. In the past election cycle, tens of million of dollars was raised on the Internet from small donations by individuals. This was mostly by Democrats, for example In the presidential primaries for 2008, the trend is rapidly increasing. How this will play out against the entrenched interests is yet to be seen. Republicans are behind the curve in this area, and for the first time in modern history are lagging Democrats in financial resources.
  4. 4.0 4.1 The tension that results from having two conflicting thoughts in your mind at the same time is called cognitive dissonance. Reading about the psychology of this mental state will help you better understand Democrats. Also, think: Doublethink
  5. The Bush Doctrine has been a few different things. So actually, Sarah Palin was smarter than you think
  6. If unfamiliar with the history, Wikipedia. The tragedy has prompted many liberals to place a “Not on My Watch” sign in their yard
  7. Note we use a different premise and thus a different facet of the Iraq debate here. Feel free to state the premise arrived at in option 1. Something along the lines of "So we shouldn't overthrow a ruler who gassed 300,000 people!?".
  8. Sunk cost, in economics, refers to money that has been spent and cannot be retrieved. The amount of the money should have no bearing on subsequent decisions. Suppose, for example, you spent a non-refundable $100 on a ticket to a play but then get a much better offer to a party. Should the fact that you would just be wasting that expensive ticket influence your decision? Logically no, because the money is spent, whether or not you go to the play. All that has to be decided is how you would prefer to spend your evening.
  9. Feel free to check for rain: "You do know what a sunk cost is don't you?"
  10. 10.0 10.1 In the Old Testament, Jonah is commanded by God to go to Nineveh and tell them that if they do not repent, they will be destroyed. This makes Jonah the only prophet to preach to the Gentiles and the only prophet who hates his job. Jonah’s paradox is that if Nineveh heeds his warnings and is spared, they may feel that the warnings were unnecessary and assail him for forcing needless sacrifices. If Nineveh ignores his warnings and is destroyed, then he has failed as a prophet. Either way he loses.
  11. See Poverty and Politics

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