When was the last time you won a political argument, i.e., when you convinced someone to change their mind to your way of thinking? When was the last time someone changed your mind? If you’re like me, it’s been a long time. Why is the sort of belief accommodation that happens in other contexts rarely (by comparison) happens political discussions? Why should it be so hard to have productive conversation about politics? For the last fifteen years or so, I’ve been observing political debate on the Internet, on TV, and talk radio, with the goal of understanding why political conversations between people who disagree are unproductive or difficult, and I have come up with a theory that explains it.

The basic idea this this: people tend to debate politics in terms of a set of basic presumptions that are unexpressed and generally undetectable by one another. These presumptions give rise to a certain approach to political debate — a particular style of argumentation and a particular strategy for working through the issues. These political argumentation styles shape the way in which a person will defend his or her political beliefs, whatever those beliefs are: they cut across the political spectrum.

Having a political argumentation style is unavoidable: you have one, I have one. We may even switch between two or three, or adopt a hybrid of styles, although some combinations are clearly much more likely than others. See if you can identify some people you know from the following list. You might even see yourself!

  1. The Parochialist — One who thinks a social system should favor the interests of members of a particular parish, town, city, or other geographical area. Political debate seeks to establish whether a political candidate or proposed legislation would benefit the people living there.
  2. The Traditionalist — One who thinks that political arrangements should hew to the mandates of tradition, often as codified in an authoritative work of law, such as The Constitution, The Bible, or The Quran. Such a person understands political debate to be an exercise in establishing whether there is an interpretation or some law or policy that is consistent with their tradition or its canonical texts. This is the essential purpose of debate; all other discussion is either secondary or pointless.
  3. The Conspiracy Guy — One who thinks that largely unrecognized powers and forces control aspects of the political landscape in mysterious ways for unknown (but often diabolical) ends. Political debate is focused on the credibility (or lack thereof) of hypotheses about what or who has the control and how current patterns and trends suggest the operation of these forces. No other political debates are worth engaging in until the basic framework of operating conspiracies is established.
  4. The Single-Issue Guy — One whose primary concern is a single issue such as peace/non-violence, abortion, or the environment. The Single-Issue Guy engages in political debate only to the extent that he can steer it back to his favorite issue, on which he is highly knowledgeable. He will tend to argue that all facts available to him point in the direction of support for his position on the issue, deftly turning counterexamples into confirming evidence.
  5. The Partisan — One whose primary concern is defending “his” party and/or his candidate. The Party guy approaches political debate with a focus on establishing why support for his party’s platform or his candidates’ policies is warranted, and why the other parties and/or candidates are unworthy of support.
  6. The Connector — One whose primary concern is connecting with an interlocutor. The Connector views political debate as a means to a greater end – to establish a personal connection to the other person in the conversation. The Connector will express alignment or agreement, or use other devices of personal charisma to generate a feeling that they are simpatico.
  7. The Gadfly — One whose primary concern is inciting an emotional response. The Gadfly will use the tools of rhetoric to provoke laugher, outrage or distain, or motivate another to act. The Gadfly sees political debate as pointless unless there is an opportunity to make some form of political activism happen as a direct result. Although many Gadflies are deliberately contradictory, staking out a “Devil’s Advocate” stance, others seek to inspire and motivate those that agree with them.
  8. The Satirist — One who used the devices of satire in order to provoke another’s recognition of the harmful consequences of a political policy. In political debate, the satirist uses techniques such as reductio ad absurdum and logical analogy to confront another with the implications of a political standpoint.
  9. The Empiricist — One who sees political debates as necessarily focused on the details of a specific issue or candidate’s favored policies, and typically sees political issues as isolated. The relevant facts bear directly on the question of the appropriate position to take on an issue, without presuming the relevance of any integrating ideology or theory. The empiricist will debate by appeal to common sense pragmatism, eschewing the complexities and sometimes counterintuitive principles of economics, jurisprudence or philosophy.
  10. The Sociologist — One who thinks that social systems should favor the class or group that he or she identifies with. Political debate is an exercise in establishing or refuting the legitimacy of the claims to power within the basic structure of society made by various groups within it. The groups to which claims might be ascribed typically are based on distinctions or divisions of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnicity, religion, or economic status.
  11. The Technocrat — For technocrats, political debate often invokes the technical or analytic tools of a particular branches of social science theory such as rational choice theory, monetary theory, etc. Technocrats are the “policy wonks” for whom political debate focuses on the design of policy and legislation with deference to intellectual elites or specialists who will control things in their view of the best interests of society, regardless of what the majority of the electorate wants. Technocrats often think that people are uninformed and chose policies that are not in the interests of the general welfare.
  12. The Philosopher — One who believes that social systems should be structured to ensure the entrenchment of universal and fundamental social values such as liberty and justice. Political debate for the philosopher is an exercise in establishing whether policy or legislation is consistent with these fundamental values and principles.

Consider what happens when two people with different argumentation styles engage in political debate. Each person will adopt a position on some issue, and then try to argue for their position using their characteristic approach to argumentation. They may soon discover that they have little common ground as a basis for effective conversation. Incompatible argumentation styles may make communication difficult, and make eventual agreement the most remote of possibilities.

A couple of caveats are in order. I’m not saying that argumentation style differences fully explain communication failure in political discussion. There are a number of other contributing factors, each of which can be avoided by critical thinkers.

In the best case scenario, the debaters will avoid appealing to the usual tactical fallacies ― slippery slope, ad hominemplaying the “Hitler Card,” etc. Use of these tactics undermines the norms of effective rational discussion and makes communication more difficult. Debates where the participants successfully avoid fallacious tactics may result from adopting something like a code of conduct. Generally, people don’t formalize the terms of their interaction, so there is no explicit agreement informed by the rules of effective, rational, conversational engagement. However, even if there is such an agreement in place, it is difficult for participants to observe them during the heat of debate. (This is one reason why public debates need a moderator.) In some political debates, people “get emotional” based on the strength of their conviction and the passion they bring to the defense of their outlook. At some level of fervor, emotion and passion can become uncontrolled, and critical thinking goes out the window.

But politics is not special in this regard. People can get at least as emotional discussing the superiority of their favorite sports team. And even among people carrying less emotional charge, why should mutual understanding be so hard to come by? If my theory is right, differences in argumentation styles can explain what heated emotion and dialectical fallacies can not.

The next time you are in a political discussion, see if you can identify what archetypal strategies might best describe the style in which the other person argues. Do differences between your style and theirs help explain the extent to which you misunderstand one another? Feel free to leave a comment below describing your recent experience.