About the New Tone


There is a lot of talk about tone these days. People think political arguments are nastier than they used to be. They are certainly nasty. But I’d argue people are actually more civil now than they used to be.

Let’s briefly go back to 1856. Rep. Preston Brooks and Sen. Charles Sumner had a disagreement about slavery. Sumner had also said some unpleasant things about Brooks’ cousin in a speech. So Brooks approached Sumner on the Senate floor and began beating him with a heavy cane.

Sumner ducked underneath a desk that was bolted to the floor. Brooks ripped the desk from its moorings and kept attacking. Sumner, covered in blood, soon collapsed. Brooks continued to bludgeon Sumner’s limp, unconscious body until his cane finally broke.

Over the following weeks, Brooks’ constituents sent him dozens of new canes in the mail. One of them was inscribed, “Good job.” He also won re-election that year.

Things are different now. Words are the only weapons in today’s political fights. Mean and hurtful words, yes. But no canes. So we’ve made some progress there. But the level of discussion is still very low.

For example, many partisan Democrats argue as follows: “Corporations and/or the Koch brothers are making this argument. Therefore, it is invalid.”

Many partisan Republicans argue similarly: “Labor unions and/or George Soros are making this argument. Therefore, it is invalid.”

This is not a rigorous line of thought. As a matter of logic, arguments are either right or wrong. It doesn’t matter who makes the argument. It doesn’t matter why they make that argument. It is either right or wrong — on its merits.

Those merits are beyond the intellectual grasp of many partisans. Hence all the name-calling on Fox News and in The New York Times. As Plato wrote in Phaedo, “The partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question, but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his own assertions.” Scoring political points trumps all. Truth matters less than the next election.

There is something very primal about the partisan mind and its low tone. Human beings have an ingrained impulse to affirm their in-group, and to vilify Others. This had evolutionary benefits in the hunter-gatherer era, when Others posed a genuine survival threat. Today, strangers don’t steal your food and your mate. Mostly, they just ignore you on the subway. But DNA changes more slowly than culture. So the pattern persists.

That primitive instinct is why people are so quick to resort to “corporations are evil” and “unions are evil” arguments. It is also why such shallow reasoning is so persuasive to most people. If you disagree with someone, just lump them in with those vile Others. It would seem that our very nature dooms us to a low level of political discourse.

There is a way out, though. The economist Joseph Schumpeter pointed to it early in his massive History of Economic Analysis. His advice is to ignore the person making an argument, and concentrate instead on the argument itself. As he puts it: ”[A]ny arguments of a scientific character produced by ’special pleaders’ — whether they are paid or not for producing them — are for us just as good or bad as those of ‘detached philosophers,’ if the latter species does indeed exist.”

Then he cuts to the chase: ”[O]ccasionally, it may be an interesting question to ask why a man says what he says; but whatever the answer, it does not tell us anything about whether what he says is true or false.”

The Kochs, Soros, and all the other partisan bugbears are interesting people. But they are mere distractions in the search for public policies to promote freedom, prosperity, and human dignity. Anyone genuinely interested in setting a new tone should treat them that way.