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We Have To Do Something

One of the more popular rhetorical strategies used by Republicans lately is to accuse their opponents of not wanting to do anything. Opponents of the war in Iraq wanted to let Saddam do whatever he wants, opponents of the Healthy Forests Initiative want to let people's homes burn down, opponents of the PATRIOT Act want to tell al-Qaida "thank you sir, may I have another?"

On one level, this is an example of the logical fallacy of the false dilemma. The user of this fallacy offers two choices -- support the war or let Saddam off the hook, for example -- as if between them they exhausted the possibilities, when in fact they do not.

On another level, Republicans are able to make the false dilemma into a true one. They're able to do this because they're in power (and presumably the Democrats would do the same thing if they controlled both Congress and the White House). And they're able to do this because the policy debate takes place not only on the discursive level, but on the level of voting. Voting lacks the nuance of speech, particularly the ability to challenge the terms of the question and introduce alternatives. It's yes or no on the measure at hand. And the people in power -- the Republicans, at present -- have the ability to define what options are on the table. They're able to simplify the debate so that voting for Healthy Forests or doing nothing about wildfire do in fact exhaust the available courses of action. (Of course, the Democrats aren't totally powerless, so the situation right now is slightly less rigid than the pure case that I'm presenting for the sake of argumentative clarity.)

This is one reason to take those "report cards" that interest groups issue about voting records with a grain of salt. The groups issuing the card define one vote as doing something good about the environment/guns/abortion/whatever, and the other as not. This misses out on people who would like a third option and don't think the option on the table is good enough. Further, it conflates actual support for a measure with voting for a bad measure so as to look like you're on the right side or that you do want to do something about the issue. In one sense, this isn't so bad, since it's the votes that actually count, not what an official feels in his or her heart. But those votes are dependent on the power relations at the time of the vote. The Democrats would come off looking much more like they want to do something about terrorism if they had the power to define what something we were going to consider doing about terrorism.

Anyone who can make a false dilemma into a true one in this fashion is in a good position. They can smuggle quite a lot of objectionable (to their opponents) things into the "do something" option, trusting that the overall package is still better than doing nothing and that a better version can't be introduced into the choice. The side without power, meanwhile, is in an unenviable situation. The dilemma facing Congressional Democrats over the $87 billion request for Iraq is the most prominent example. They're stuck between not wanting to endorse the administration's adventure in Iraq, but also not wanting to do nothing for the people of Iraq or the American soldiers serving over there. While I would vote yes in this artificially de-falsified dilemma, I can understand others voting no.

Some Democratic leaders seem to have found a way that may alter the terms of the debate in situations like this. It's a solution that's dependent on the less-powerful party still having a sizeable chunk of power. What they're doing is making a credible threat to do nothing. The powerful party will, presumably, want something to be done. Faced with the possibility of getting nothing done, they may be convinced to alter the nature of the "do something" option, making it more palatable to partisans of a third option that has been taken out of the universe of possibility.

The threat to do nothing is most clear in the case of filibustering nominees. Both sides would like to see offices filled. The Republicans have tried to define the terms of the debate to be a righ-winger or nobody. By using the power of the filibuster -- siezing the "do nothing" option in the face of an undesirable "something" -- the Democrats hope to put the Republicans in the position of either nominating more moderate candidates, or doing nothing. The filibuster takes certain options out of the universe of possible courses of action. On the discursive level, anything is still fair game -- people can say they want an ideologue rather than a moderate or nobody. But on the practical level, that option has been taken out of play if the filibuster strategy is successful.


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