TeamPurple Political Explainer (8/23)- The Straw Man Argument

So you see that stick figure at the top of the page?  Pretty undefined right?  You can apply pretty much anything you want to it.

  • Want to put big goofy hands on it?  Done.
  • Think it could use some big huge ’70s hair?  Easy.
  • Make it appear feminine with long eyelashes and big lips?  Piece of cake.

The point is you can do whatever you want to it, because it is undefined. Which brings us to straw man arguments.

What’s a straw man argument?  In politics there’s a bit of an axiom; don’t ask the question asked, asked the one you wish had been asked.  There’s a corollary to that; don’t compete against the rival you have, compete against the one you wish you had.  And so it goes, whoever you want to run against, ascribe as many negative attributes to them as you can (the straw) and pack as much straw into that as is possible.  The more undefined your opponent is, the stronger this argument becomes because people make their first impressions not based on fact, but based on what you labeled them as.

In this case, it’s about taking issues, slurs and negative attributes and sliming your opponent with them.  It’s taking what little molehill you can find, and build it into a mountain so big nobody would ever consider climbing it.  It’s prevalence in political campaigns is a big cause of the rise of “negative partisanship” since voters abhor how they perceive the other side to be.  Don’t believe me?  This is just a sampling of today’s twitter feed:

  • “Ryan, McConnell and Trump are such fascists!  Trump is an autocrat like the ones we fought a revolution against for freedom!”
  • “With leaders like Sanders and Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, Democrats are on a slippery slope to socialism/communism.  It’s only a matter of time before we turn into Venezuela.”
  • “We don’t need Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco values in Minnesota.”
  •  “Illegal immigrants are criminals!  That poor girl in Iowa is just the start!  Without the wall, Mexicans will take over this country!”

If the dichotomy in american politics actually were between Communism and Fascism, we’d be in a very precarious place indeed.  In actuality, we’re ideologically and socially much closer than that, and those are just embellishments to the nth degree.  Voting for Sanders doesn’t turn you into Che Guevara and voting Trump doesn’t turn you into Mussolini.  But that’s the point– by using that particular language, voters are fearful of being labeled as such and become averse to alternative options.

Republicans are pretty predictable in this regard.  How do they usually define their opponents?

  • They’re a liberal!  Sometimes they embellish by portraying them as a “San Francisco” or “Limousine” liberal.
  • They’re elitist!  “East Coast” or “West Coast” is sometimes added.  Main thing is that they’re condescending to the rest of “us.”
  • They’re taxers!  They want to take all of your money and give it to the government!  Nevermind the fact republicans have no problem taking your money through business and lining their own pockets instead of the common good.
  • They’re socialist! Communist! If there is a hot button issue they usually apply this to the issue.  Socialized Health Care!  Obamacare is communism!

They take those tropes and stuff as much straw into their portrayal of their opponents as they can.  Still, they aren’t the only ones who use this tactic.  Here are a few Democratic versions:

  • They want to gut Social Security and Medicare!  As government run social programs these are often easy targets for Republicans, but the changes proposed are often minor and necessary to the long term solvency of the programs.  Medicare part D, the drug benefit, was actually enacted under a Republican Congress and President (W. Bush).  They’re not stupid, these programs are enormously popular and a third rail to change.
  • Far too often they venture into religion.  It’s often Democrats stress “evangelical,”, “ultra-christian,” “moralist” or similar language.  This is largely because democrats tend to be secular, atheist or of varying religions and stress inclusiveness.  By pointing out the piety of their opponent (and their singular religion, since most don’t belong to multiple religions), they hope to portray them as homogenous, narrow-minded, and morally condescending.  In truth, a lot of religious organizations regardless of affiliation do a lot of charitable good, are welcoming to many regardless of faith, and people engaged in their church are often very good-hearted, respectful people.

And God forbid you are an incumbent, because then you’re susceptible to the biggest smears of all:

  • He’s a Washington Insider!
  • She’s a member of the D.C. Swamp!
  • They’re nothing but corrupt Washington politicians!

Being experienced in a job is usually considered a positive attribute unless you are running for Congress.

So as you can see, the straw man argument is everywhere in politics.  What prompted me to write this piece is a article showing that Republicans are talking about Impeachment prior to the midterms in far greater numbers and frequency than democrats are.  In fact, only one candidate talked about impeachment actively on the Democratic side and he lost his primary.

“And it’s not just Democratic leaders who aren’t talking about impeachment. As part of FiveThirtyEight’s project looking at what types of Democrats are doing well in primaries for Senate, House and governor this year, we looked at the campaign website for each of the 811 people who, as of Aug. 7, had appeared on the ballot in Democratic primaries for races with no Democratic incumbent. Only one candidate (Nate Kleinman, running for a House seat in New Jersey) featured a call for impeaching Trump on his website. And he lost his primary, getting just 9 percent of the vote “–

So why are Republicans talking about Impeachment?  It isn’t because they want to impeach their own President, it’s to make their voters fear the possibility of the other side impeaching Trump.  Hence, they build up the Impeachment Straw Man.

Another use of the straw man relates to how Trump constantly builds up that there is no “Collusion” and seems fixated on this term.  On the day that Manafort was convicted of 8 crimes and Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to 8 others, Trump was adamant about it being a “witch hunt” and that there was still “no collusion!”  Why?  Because its the weakest charge against him (he’s all but admitted Obstruction of Justice and Campaign Finance violations) and he wasn’t at the primary meeting between the Russians and his campaign where conspiracy (not collusion, which is not a crime) was contemplated.  By narrowing the field of charges against him to just “collusion” (again, not a crime; “conspiracy” is the crime) and building that up as the biggest and only real charge against him, he stands a better chance of keeping his supporters.

What other straw men arguments do you see regularly?

Do you have a suggestion for our Explainer columns?  Did you ever wonder why something is the way it is in politics?  Reach out to us through the comments or contact us at and let us know!

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