Logical Fallacies 2: The Middle Ground Fallacy in the Age of Trump (Plus Propaganda)
The “middle ground fallacy” claims each extreme side is equally right or wrong and the truth must lie in the middle. First, as median voter guy, I tend to be in the middle and prefer to land a compromise making both sides equally uncomfortable. Thanks to the increasingly extreme politics, especially of Republicans in general and Trump in particular, this approach is not viable. Norm Ornstein (with coauthor Thomas Mann) made exactly this point in It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, published in 2012, long before the Trump presidency. The pair were famously neutral before the book, but boycotted by much of the media as partisan after that. The mainstream media has not moved away from this “both sides are equally bad” presentation, seemingly no matter how bad the extremism becomes.
Analytics demonstrate the Democratic/Republican shifts. For example, GovTrack presented senators scores, where 0 was liberal voting all the time and 1 was totally conservative voting. Republicans scored .51 to 1 (Susan Collins to Jim Imhofe). Democrats scored 0 (Al Franken) to .71 (Joe Manchin). Throw out Collins and Manchin and there is no crossover’ that is, all Democrats were more liberal that any Republican. Five Thirty Eight pointed out that Republicans on that same scale averaged 56 in 1976 and 71 in 2012.
Fox News has hard news programs that remain in the mainstream (I usually watch Chris Wallace on Sunday morning for example), but many of the remaining shows are extreme to the extreme. Right-wing think tanks provide additional ammunition, with logical fallacies and other propaganda tricks prominently featured. The major counter to the extreme right wing seems to be late night comedy, with their brands of comedy well positioned in the age of Trump. They seem to have a good understanding of the perverse logic of fallacies. MSNBC and other left-wing media are something of a counter, but I generally don’t find them particularly appealing or persuasive.
A strange brew is the “never Trumpers,” conservatives and former Republicans opposed to Trump. They seem to be former Republicans believing in various conservative tenets and have a reasonable sense of ethics. George Will in a prominent member. I think he relies on logical fallacies a bit too often (I have a couple of blogs on this), but I appreciate his principles. Former Republican campaign consultant Rick Wilson is an extreme vocal critic of Trump, but from the right. He is familiar with Republican dirty tricks, like Lee Atwater’s Willie Horton attack adds against Michael Dukakis, and apparently a user. (See my blog of his book Running Against the Devil in April.) David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, wrote two critical books on Trump: Trumpocracy and Trumpocalypse. Conservative and columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks, seems to be a centrist. The results has been distancing himself from the Republican Party over time. He would claim that Trump might be a sociopath and seemed to support Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Trump and the Republicans raised a galleon’s worth of gold to fund the reelection effort. How they use it with their battalions of storm troopers will be eye-popping; there doesn’t seem to be any basis for restraint. Biden and other Democrats will be presented as evil, corrupt, law-breaking incompetents, ready to be prosecuted for multiple crimes—perhaps sexual assault, murder, treason. Wilson gives a rough idea in his books, including Running Against the Devil.
Unrestrained political power suggests considerable voter suppression, a set of techniques that has a long, infamous history and, no doubt, Republicans will pull out all stops (possibly with little regard for legality). They have already attacked the use of mail-in ballots, a logical response to the pandemic. Trump helpfully pointed out Republicans would never win if mail-in ballots were used. With Federalists Society judges appointed at a sprinter’s pace and William Barr as Attorney General, the definition of rule of law is anyone’s guess.
A few of my book reviews cover books dealing with propaganda in various forms. Most of the techniques of propaganda are not outright lies and many use logical fallacies. Richard Stengel was Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under Obama (described in his memoir Information Wars, which extensively covered Putin’s propaganda machine and the poor response from the West). In his view, Russia is great on propaganda, while the US and the rest of the West is not (disinformation is protected free speech). He pointed out toward the end, how the Trump play book is similar to that of Putin. Stengel called Trump “Disinformer in Chief.”
Logical fallacies are made more difficult by Trump’s “false and misleading statements,” over 18,000 by mid-April. The rate increased from 15 a day to 23 a day this year. It has been suggested that he believes everything he says and would pass a lie detector test. Either way, it is not a sign of great leadership. False statements are a somewhat different category than fallacies, but it seems worthwhile to consider and classify both. Disinformation (false and deceptive), as describe by Stengal, uses both logical fallacies and outright lies.
One of the techniques for outright lies is called "firehosing," blasting the media with outright lies or various forms of propaganda. This was a technique mastered by Putin's Russia, with four major characteristics: 1) high volume; 2) rapid, continuous and repetitive; 3) no commitment to objective reality, and 4) no commitment to consistency. The main point is to claim no one can be trusted. It is not to be persuasive but is a type of media power by robbing the persuasiveness/relevance of facts. Trump became a disciple, lashing out and blaming to media for fact checking.
Firehosing was successfully used by Russia in 2014 after annexing Crimea, machine-gunning lies and using other propaganda techniques to mislead. It was possible because of the internet, social networks and other communication technologies. This includes various trolls and bots. This technique has been used by other governments, politicians, and sundry shady characters since. The massive effort and shamelessness of these attacks makes them different from previous propaganda efforts. A major strategy is to give the appearance that multiple sources are providing the same message. Given the strategy of mainstream news media to present disturbing stories, the story travels quickly--before fact checking begins.
Unfortunately, standard "counter-propaganda" techniques don't work well. More extreme counter measures could be modestly effective, including providing rapid-fire counter information, explaining an alternative (and more compelling) story, describing how propaganda works, and getting the assistance of social platforms. However, considerable damage can be done even with counter measures.
Politics and the Overton Window
The Overton Window represents the range of politics/policies considered acceptable to the mainstream of voters. That means politicians are limited in what policy ideas they can support. Many Democrats want Medicare for all, while many Republicans want to eliminate Obamacare. A large group of voters does not show enthusiasm for either position. Presumably, this means changes within the Affordable Care Act Much of the time, this is essentially Median Voter Guy territory.
^ Medicare for all
| Medicare as public option
Window Status quo or minimal changes
| Eliminate Obamacare
Eliminate all government involvement in healthcare
Joseph Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy developed the concept in the mid-1990s. A continuum exists between the extreme right and the extreme left (or the full spectrum for a political issue). Somewhere in the middle represents what is politically possible at a given time, the Overton Window. Historically, this worked somewhat in parallel with the median voter model. For much of the 20th century, Republicans were overall more conservative that Democrats, buts there was a wide range of beliefs across both parties. That started to change in the 1960's largely due to civil rights legislation and the rise of Barry Goldwater (and, a bit later, Ronald Reagan). Democrats moved left, Republicans right--many after shifting parties. Our representative at the time, Phil Gramm, switched from Democrat to Republican in 1983.
Overton's idea was the extremes represent unthinkable position to most people, then radical, finally acceptable, sensible and popular. Political changes tend to go through this process over time, from universal suffrage to gay marriage. Moving from an unthinkable to radical to acceptable requires persuasion. Noam Chomsky pointed out: "The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow lively debate within that spectrum."
Creeping normality (coined by Jared Diamond) suggests that the spectrum moves. Over the last 30 years or so, the conservative movement has shifted right and minor deviations from current rigid doctrine create RINOs (Republicans in name only). Consequently, the Overton window have moved more conservative. Trump seems to be the latest incarnation of this move, but with his added authoritarian and narcissistic approach. Until Trump, I believe every president for a hundred or so years has been a globalist (granted, sometimes with perverse reasons).
Over the same time, Median Voter Guy has not changed much. I believe my positions have been fairly consistent over time, but I have less and less agreement with conservatives (they now seem what I used to consider the far right). I still have conservative positions on some issues and liberal on others. I am a fiscal conservative and believe the federal government should run near-balanced budgets except in times of crisis. I tend to be skeptical of many welfare programs. Plus government overreach is real and unintended consequences occur (consider the government-created savings and loan crisis of the 1980's or the 2008 subprime debacle). On the other hand, public health and healthcare in general should be a public good and provided to everyone in some form (like all other developed countries). Public education also is critical and should be better funded.