Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Sophistry Watch: Smaller Victory = Defeat

[Please do forgive the somewhat disorganized nature of the following. I'm tired and disoriented this morning. There are substantial edits in the folllowing:]

Many conservatives last night and this morning (e.g. Krauthammer, much of The Corner, much of Faux News) are making some version of the following argument:

(1) Obama's margin of victory was small this time


(2) mumblemumblemumble-Obama-is-bad-not-a-real-win-no-mandate-mumblemumblemumble...

It's not clear what the conclusion is really supposed to be...  In fact, it varies depending on who's puling about it. But it basically boils down to something roughly like: so this wasn't really a victory.

This is, of course, a terrible the extent that it's really an argument at all. We do, of course, have to account for the fact that most of what comes from those sectors is not reasoning at all, but more like a primal scream or expression of hatred. That makes it a little foolish to try to engage with it rationally...but wisdom has never been one of my virtues...

To the extent that it's something akin to an actual thought, the argument is a bad one. Note:

A.  Obama's win last time was huge. So, just by regression to the mean,we should expect that a second victory would be smaller.

B. Presidents are seldom elected during such bad times economically. Another way of saying this: their share of the vote shrinks--a lot.

C. This election took place after four years of the very people who are making the argument above working ceaselessly to undermine Obama and convince the country that he is illegitimate and evil.

D. Of course they'd never make such an argument if it were a Republican in office. There is, in fact, nothing especially notable about the fact that Obama's margin of victory shrank. But we're dealing with an opposition party that simply does not believe that there any Democrat can be a legitimate president. No matter what happens, no matter what the facts, they will seize on something, anything to try to rationalize their anger. If Obama's margin of victory had been identical to that of 2008, they would shriek that it was crucial that it had not increased. If it had increased, but not by much, they would shriek that it hadn't gone up enough. If it went up a lot, they'd simply shriek about something else. Philosophers hate to psychologize about their interlocutors in this way, but when one's opponents are not rational, rational discussion with them is not possible. Justification of their beliefs and utterances is no longer really on the table; explanation (generally in terms of their psychology) is what's called for.

Now, these are all rather indirect criticisms of the argument in question. If we wanted to be more precise about things, I suppose we might just point out that none of the conclusions follow from the premise of the argument. Obama's win the second time around is perfectly respectable. In the EC, it's bigger than either of Bush's wins. Even if the win indicates somewhat diminished support, this doesn't mean anything like what the advocates of the argument are trying to prove. FDR's margin of victory was smaller in 1940 than it was in '36, but that means...basically nothing.

Of course, to really evaluate this argument it'd have to really be an argument. But it isn't. The considerations proffered don't support any conclusions about Obama's legitimacy, nor about what he is entitled to attempt as President. They might be relevant in some strategic arguments about what it would be wise for Obama to attempt to do...but (a) not very, and (b) that's not how they are intended.

The Smaller Victory = Defeat argument is just the right's first go at giving shape to their anger. When they have more time to think of it, they'll develop more sophisticated sophistries. But this one is weak sauce indeed.


Blogger Carolyn said...

In 2004, Bush won the popular vote by 1.5 million, which is half as big as Obama's margin looks to be. If I recall correctly, the only word you heard on Fox News for the next three months was: MAAAAAAAAAAAANDATE!

3:41 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

My thoughts exactly.

Quoth Dubya: "I've got political capital, and I'm going to spend it."

8:48 PM  

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