The following is adapted from the new book Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue from City Lights Books.
If a healthy political culture is rooted in conversation and based on honest argumentation, then one of the most corrosive rhetorical tactics is the use of false alternatives.
An argument based on false alternatives keeps people from considering the full range of relevant possibilities. Typically, this involves presenting an issue as if there are two – and only two – possible courses of action, one of which is unattractive for practical and/or moral reasons. An argument from false alternatives also routinely builds into its claim one or more assumptions that could be challenged.
Love It or Leave It
One common example is, “love it or leave it.” If a citizen objects to a public policy, especially involving a war, someone who supports that policy will suggest the opponent should love the country or get out. Since most people aren’t going to abandon their home – “leave it” just isn’t an option – it appears they have no choice except to “love it,” which is defined as supporting the policy. Such a suggestion is not only anti-intellectual, but anti-democratic. Obviously, people don’t have to choose between loving their country, no matter what policy is followed, or getting out. We can love our country and want to change a government’s action, such as a war, because we believe that would make it a better country. In a democracy, that kind of critique is not only allowed, but should be encouraged – it is, in fact, the lifeblood of politics. Demanding that people “love it or leave it” is a way to undermine critical thinking and democratic dialogue by ignoring all the other possibilities. Unconditional love might be appropriate in certain human relationships, but it is not conducive to a healthy intellectual and political life.
The “love it or leave it” claim also sneaks in an assumption – that loyalty to one’s country should be the highest value, that patriotism is a virtue. But there are other ways people can define their moral and political identity that would argue against the unstated claim that one’s first loyalty is owed to a nation-state. What if one believes the nation-state leads to an unacceptable concentration of power? What if one identifies with the larger human family and universal principles rather than with the concept of a country or nation-state? Or a specific religious tradition and a community of believers, or a bioregion and the local inhabitants? There may be a good argument for a primary loyalty to country, but it shouldn’t be assumed.
The National Interest
Another example of a classic false alternative in politics is asking us to choose between “special interests” and the “national interest.” In the contemporary United States, this comes up routinely in discussion of domestic policy, especially involving expenditures of government funds. The game being played is simple: You try to identify your political opponents as representing special interests (presumed to be selfish, a negative) and fuse your position with the national interest (always presented as selfless, a positive).
Depending on the politics of the person making the argument, the special interests being targeted may be large corporations angling for tax breaks or labor unions advocating for increased wages and benefits. Historically, those with wealth have done their best to paint themselves as working in the national interest (even though they are the minority) and their opponents as representing special interests (even though they are the majority). But whatever the specifics of the issue or the proposal, the special-versus-national interest framework is always an impediment to deeper understanding of an issue for a simple reason: There is no such thing as “the” national interest.
Try to imagine a policy that would be equally beneficial and/or acceptable to all 300 million people in the United States. Take a basic issue, such as the structure of the tax code. Should the federal government collect revenue through an income tax? If so, should it be a flat tax or a progressive tax? What should the tax rate be? In a society with large disparities in income and wealth, no answer is in the national interest. The “nation” is those 300 million people, and any answer will benefit some more than others. We can assume that an attempt to identify a specific choice with the so-called national interest is likely to be pushed by those benefiting from that choice.
This doesn’t mean that some choices might not be better than others based on specific criteria; that some choices don’t benefit many more people than others; or that people should support only those policies that benefit them directly. Wealthy people could choose, for example, to support a tax code that benefits working people out of a sense of justice. But we should debate proposals on their merits rather than an empty claim about the national interest.
Such a debate allows us to examine not only the technical details of a tax proposal, but the underlying moral and political assumptions – rejecting the deceptive special-versus-national framework promotes more rigorous intellectual inquiry. Sticking with tax policy as an example, one justification routinely offered on behalf of a specific tax policy proposal is that it will stimulate economic growth. If we don’t get trapped by seductive slogans, we can inquire about the evidence for the claim; about what kind of economic growth is likely to result; and about whether that’s the kind of growth we want. We might even question whether economic growth itself is preferable, given that a growing economy often means degraded ecosystems.
I have been challenged on this claim that there is never a single national interest that all citizens of a nation could endorse. What about the threat of foreign invasion? Wouldn’t repelling such a threat be in the national interest? Certainly in some cases it might be possible to get a near-unanimous agreement from citizens, such as in the case of an invasion by a vicious fascist state such as Nazi Germany. But less clear-cut cases are easy to imagine. For instance, what if in the 1850s Mexico had invaded the southern United States? One can easily imagine that some in the United States, most notably those enslaved, might welcome an invasion by a country that more than a decade earlier had outlawed slavery. If an existing government oppresses its people, foreign invasion may be a preferable option.
Politics is hard
One particularly dangerous example of how false alternatives can undermine critical thinking and political engagement is the often-repeated claim that “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” This cliché suggests that to be politically relevant, one must get involved in electoral politics through support for a candidate or a political party. People who don’t participate in that system can expect to be accused of being apathetic and bad citizens. A vibrant democracy does depend on the involvement of ordinary people, but does that mean we must choose between participating in the electoral process or being politically irrelevant? Only if we accept the assumption behind this false alternative – that the only meaningful politics comes in the electoral arena.
Some might suggest that since in our system the elected representatives make and enforce the laws, electing those representatives is the most important way to participate in politics. But history teaches that ordinary people are most effective politically when they join together outside of electoral party politics to form popular movements aimed at putting pressure on whoever happens to be in those elected positions.
People involved in grassroots organizing to build power are an important part of participatory democracy. If people choose to focus their time and energy on those popular movements, they aren’t apathetic or bad citizens. Whether one approach is more effective than the other in any particular place and time can be debated. But organizing both within and outside the electoral system is all political, if we understand politics as the struggle for how power will be distributed in a society. Those who insist that voting is the primary, or even the only, way to participate are trying to direct citizens toward a particular form of political engagement without providing an argument for why that particular form will be most effective.
This is not an abstract question. In the United States, the rules of our electoral system favor the two established parties, and hence, the people in control of those parties have an interest in the status quo. If real grassroots organizing is a threat to that system, then it’s not surprising that people in power would prefer we all channel our political energy into the elections that they dominate, or into “safe” nonprofits that will support the status quo.
When challenging people to think about politics in this more expansive fashion, a common response is frustration. How can we make sense of these complex issues when more and more of the political talk we hear is less and less substantive? All of this critical thinking about politics is hard enough when one has access to clear and coherent arguments from multiple perspectives, but in our society, most of the critical perspectives that challenge the systems and structures of power are not regularly represented in mainstream politics. Republicans and Democrats certainly have differences over policy – and sometimes over basic philosophy – but both parties support that system and those structures. News media have a tendency to present views outside that mainstream as irrelevant at best, or crazy at worst. Searching the margins for critical ideas is not simple, either; just because powerful institutions and people reject an idea doesn’t mean the idea is automatically compelling.
All this is complicated, but one thing seems clear: When people try to figure it out all on their own, they are bound to fail. I remember as a young person bouncing between points of view, picking up ideas that seemed intriguing but were in the end inadequate – all in intellectual and political isolation. We expand our vision not only through acquiring information, but through engaging with others. In the process of that engagement, we are led to new information and alternative interpretations. I didn’t start to construct a coherent political worldview until I got involved in politics through grassroots groups.
Many people’s response to that is: “That’s fine for you, but I’m not political,” which is based on the flawed notion that one can live outside of politics. We are all political, whether we become politically active or not. We all live in a society in which there is a distribution of power. If we don’t participate in politics at some level, we are simply handing our latent political power to others to exercise for us. As difficult as it can be to come to judgment about complex issues, to avoid making a judgment simply gives someone else the power to judge for you.