Learning to Argue

I am slowly learning a lesson that most good bloggers seem to have absorbed. It’s a lesson my wife has been pushing me to learn after sorting through every PFA post. “You don’t have to write a novel about everything, Bill,…sometimes someone else has already written it.”

In the pilot version of the 435 Voices podcast I mentioned a simple graphic I had created that summarizes how Project to Find America hopes to help Congress begin to be more effective at making policy. Here it is.

The PFA Change Cycle

If you haven’t listened to the pilot podcast yet, I hope you will. I believe it makes a persuasive case for the logic behind this graphic.

However, even as I slog through the process of trying to find media guests for the first set of 435 Voices episodes, it is worthwhile to acknowledge that maybe I don’t have this model right. Maybe it actually looks like this.

A Competing Version

It is pretty easy to see that we’re not going to get politicians to change their polarized and divisive ways without somehow changing the voters who elect them. In other words, the green circle won’t change until one of the other two do. But maybe voters really can be the catalysts for changing this cycle.

I came across the work of Patricia Roberts Miller last spring as I was working on the Prezi deck I used to relaunch Project to Find America. She is a professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Texas. Stop right there. Already, you are making a judgment about her based mostly on that one sentence. I’m not now judging you, we all do this, but for reasons that you will see when you click through to her post, it is important to understand that we do.

In the post Demagoguery; Or, the Pleasures of Outrage Professor Roberts-Miller articulates precisely the problem that Project to Find America hopes to address and offers a relatively simple (though certainly not easy) solution…we need to learn to argue better and then look for better sources of information that will aid those arguments. Not surprisingly, coming from a professor of writing, it is an extraordinarily well-written and thought provoking piece, I hope you’ll take a few minutes at lunch or this evening to read it.

A Day I’ll Never Get Back

I guess you could call it a workplace safety incident. I sat down at my desk yesterday morning with the best of intentions. I had been traveling on business this week and was determined to catch up on invitations to the podcast, follow up on some I’ve already sent and get a new post published on this blog.

But as I was beginning to pull together my thoughts and do just a little background research…it happened. I fell into a black hole. I clicked on a link and eight hours later I was reading about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I won’t take you through all the grisly details of a wasted day but a few of the lowlights might be instructive in explaining where I was intending to go with my post in the first place.

It started when I clicked on a link to an article in Vox magazine entitled Trump’s bizarre speech during the Dem debate illustrated the stark differences between the parties.” I’ve linked it here in case you want to read it. I’ll confess. Two things got me about this headline. One is the idea that anything that this President says would be so differentiated from the rest of what he says to earn the adjective bizarre…kind of like when somebody says something is super awesome. The other was a hope that the Democratic Debate, which for reasons I’ll cover below I had decided not to watch on Thursday night, had provided something different than what I had expected. As it turned out, I was disappointed on both fronts. I should have known better.

The President did what he often does in public speeches (and tweets.) He made fun of some people in a personal way that I think would make most of us uncomfortable. He took credit for things his policies have had nothing to do with and made assertions that are not only unverified but unverifiable. How do we fact check “cleanest water and air in the nation’s history?”

But most of what the President did on stage for an hour Thursday night wasn’t so different from what many politicians across the political spectrum do these days. He said, in effect: “everything that is good in your life you can thank us for, everything that is wrong is their fault. What they want to do is dangerous and if you’ll just put us in/back in office we’ve got a bag full of really great stuff to unload just around the corner. This is only somewhat generalized, it didn’t get a lot more specific than this.

So then I watched the Democratic Debate. It was different in tenor and different in style. A debate, in which ten candidates are at least nominally expected to talk about policy, is certainly going to feel different than what amounted to a campaign rally. But the substance, from my perspective, was similar. Several of the candidates called the President names, a few others called his policies dangerous and all offered the promise of a world that will be better with them in the White House, without a lot about the specifics and tradeoffs that will be required to make that happen.

To be fair, the debate format really doesn’t lend itself to an in-depth discussion of policy – how do you do that in 40 seconds? One of those ten candidates could go on to become one of the great Presidents of our time, but the format doesn’t make it easy to see which one. To put it another way – the behaviors that the candidates needed to exhibit to look good in this debate, to get the pundits to declare them the winner, do not correlate well with the behaviors they will need to be good Presidents, which is why I had resolved not to watch in the first place.

But by early afternoon I was ready to pull myself out of the black hole when I veered into this headline: Ad Showing Ocasio-Cortez’s face in flames and pile of skulls airs during debate. I hadn’t seen the debate live and didn’t know what was waiting for me. Unfortunately this time the headline described it perfectly. It is sickening.

To characterize Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as somehow today’s version of Pol Pot is like saying Homo Denisova and the Whiffenpoofs are related. There are some common characteristics, but they are much more different than they are alike. This kind of nonsense is as destructive as it is ludicrous. It is 14 months until the election and already we have attack ads. If this is what we have to look forward to then it will be a wonder if anyone is listening to anything that any politician has to say by November 3, 2020. I turned off the computer after watching this and went to make dinner.

But here’s what I was going to say before I fell down the rabbit hole. If Democrats get their wish and one of the 10 Democrats on stage on Thursday night wins next November that, by itself, is no assurance that any of these behaviors are likely to change. It might make them worse. Republicans will resist again, as the Democrats have been for the last two and a half years. The President on Thursday called the Democrat-controlled House the “most obstructive group of people” he has ever seen, ironically in reference to his wall. That surely is the pot calling the kettle black, as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy…who was sitting in the audience could tell him.

On the other hand, if Donald Trump wins again…we get another five and a half years of this at a moment in history we just can’t afford to waste. When will the cycle of resist until our party wins again stop? Where does it end?

It ends when we stop paying attention to zero-sum nonsense and start paying attention to substantive ideas and demanding substance at the polls. It ends when we stop dismissing the lies that politicians tell us by assuring ourselves that “they all do it.” This is a big deal folks. Far more important than any policy change that is likely to be enacted by the 117th Congress or the next President is the opportunity these upcoming 470 elections present to say.. enough is enough and the peril to our system of government if we don’t.

Our current election discourse is a race to the bottom so let’s score it as such. Lowest score loses.

  • -10 points for every thing a candidate says about another candidate you wouldn’t say to a coworker
  • -50 points for every thing a candidate says about another candidate that would likely get you punched in the nose by that coworker.
  • -25 points for candidates that attempt to take credit for things they had nothing to do with
  • -30 points for candidates that blame their opponent for things they had nothing to do with.
  • -10 points for each instance of a candidate talking about what’s wrong with someone else’s idea instead of what’s right about their approach.
  • -10 points every time a candidate blames “the other party.”
  • -10 points for each argument made using unverified assertions
  • -20 points for each argument made using unverifiable assertions
  • -25 points for someone running against someone who is targeted in an attack ad.

As our President is fond of saying, “I’m kidding…well, I’m not really kidding.” You could keep a little scoresheet next to your television remote and keep a running tab until it’s time to go cast your ballot, first in the primaries next winter and spring and then in the general election.

As Americans we like sending messages. Well how about this message…you do more of this stuff than your opponent…you lose. No matter what party you are in or if you are the incumbent or the challenger…we’re done with this.

Why You Should be a Guest on 435 Voices

Okay, I’ll confess. This post serves a double purpose. I have some ideas of people I think would make great guests on my upcoming podcast 435 Voices and I am beginning to invite them. So I am hoping this page will convince them to join a guy they’ve never heard of on a podcast that hasn’t really launched yet to talk about something few people are comfortable talking about. More on that in a minute.

But perhaps you, or someone you know that I don’t, would also make a great guest. The more the merrier – truly, so if after reading this description of what I’ve got in mind you want to be a guest please consider this an invitation and drop me a line and if you’ve got someone else in mind please forward this to them.

So, what is 435 Voices? Well, the 435 comes from the number of voting districts in the US House of Representatives. There will be one podcast episode devoted to each of the 435 congressional districts and every day until the 2020 election we will publish a new one. “Woah, that’s a lot of podcasts and a lot of politics you might well be thinking. If I wanted help sleeping I’d just download the sound of ocean waves.”

So let me start with what 435 Voices isn’t. It isn’t about politics. It isn’t about the 2020 Presidential Election. It isn’t about who is right and who is wrong and it isn’t about which “side” is winning or losing.

My thesis is that there is more in common among the interests of the people of the New York-21st district and the Georgia-14th than there is between them and either of their geographic neighbors. The same is likely true of the California-21st and the Iowa-1st. We’ve been sold this idea, for a variety of reasons you can read more about here and here, that there are only two types of people out there, liberals and conservatives, we’ve given them each a color and told that every policy question can be answered by choosing your flavor.

This fable is as ridiculous as it is destructive to the process of making laws. The last 20 years of policy making represents the worst extended stretch in US history. You know this and it explains why Congress’ latest performance rating was woeful. According to Gallup’s July poll, 17 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, 76 percent disapprove. You would have to go back a decade to get to a place where that number got even as high as 30 percent.

“But wait”, I can hear my intended guests saying, “you said this podcast isn’t about politics.” It isn’t. It’s not about Republicans and Democrats or Liberals or Conservatives or even Independents. It’s about us. The things we want as Americans, the things we can agree on that would make this country better. It’s not about politics, it’s about policy.

The goal of each of the episodes of 435 Voices will be to help listeners understand a bit about a part of our country they may not be too familiar with and along the way, I’m guessing, find out that we have many things in common that we would like to see get better in our world and thus things we would like our government to do or stop doing to enable that progress.

I am inviting 2-4 people that live or work in each district to be guests and each episode will run 25-30 minutes. The format will be roughly the same for each show.

Coming in Late September
  • An overview of the district, where it is, what it includes. What drives the local economy
  • Each guest will share something that most visitors don’t know about their district
  • Each guest will share their perspective on an outcome or two that is particularly important to the people of their district. We will start with the outcomes poll on this site but any outcomes are welcome as long as they are framed as outcomes.
  • We will then move to discussing any ways in which the government or private sector, either in the district or elsewhere are coming up with ways to make progress on these outcomes. Guests are encouraged to share links to be used on the show notes page.
  • We will wrap up with each guest sharing the thing they like best about living where they do.

If these questions sound good to you and you are willing to share your thoughts, I’d love to have you. My hope is to begin recording the segments in the next two weeks and although I plan to publish an episode every day I also want to record them close to their air date so it might be several months until we reach your district.