Don’t Debate the Player, Debate the Claim

Five keys to successful political debate

1) Always respect your opponent

You will never persuade your opponent to agree with your position. Logicians who happen to be watching your debate could prove with absolute certainty that your opponent's position is completely fallacious by every known rule of human logic, and your opponent won't budge. Like you, people are set in their ways and have heard years of biased opinions to cement their own worldview. They may change their minds eventually (remember, Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat and David Horowitz was once an Afrocentric Communist), but it will certainly not happen during your debate.

Respect this reality. You can only hope to persuade your audience, and you should strive to do so. Resist the urge to insult, disparage, or otherwise malign your opponent or any other person.

Both sides should seek to debate content, and not character. When your opponent uses ad hominem arguments against you, however, it can work to your advantage. Often times it is a signal that your arguments are so convincing that your adversary must launch personal assaults due to his inability to rebut your message. We at PI know this very well, as we are subject to innumerable ad hominem attacks. The fine members of fark, reddit, and other online news communities call us right-wing, Ayn Rand-loving extremists. The fine members of FreeRepublic and other conservative news forums call us lefty communists. Others say, "What can a bunch of twentysomethings know about economics (or politics) anyway?"

The ad hominem argument proves that your opponent has already exhausted all logic and is resorting to slander instead. It should be taken as a compliment. And it should most certainly not be reciprocated.

Your refusal to engage in mudslinging and namecalling will likely provoke ire in your rival, and will certainly further allow you to distinguish yourself in the eyes of your audience as the voice of reason.

2) Find common ground, and stake a claim on it

You should make every effort to base your arguments off of commonly-shared viewpoints. This not only persuades a greater number of your audience, but also damages your opponents' arguments more severely.

This is one of the most under-utlized techniques in today's political scene. Socialists accuse free market supporters of hating poor people, and affirmative action opponents of hating minorities. Likewise, conservatives accuse decriminalization supporters of subsidizing pothead losers, and opponents of censorship as being pro-immorality. The list could go on.

Instead of becoming enraged, or disregarding your opponent as a crackpot idiot, you should make your opponent look foolish by showing yourself to be aware of the same concerns that he is. Free-market proponents should make strides to explain how economic growth benefits the poor, affirmative action opponents should explain how the discriminatory policy actually hurts minorities, and decriminalization supports should explain how they support the rights of productive citizens, and not potheads.

Finding common ground enhances your persuasive power. Your audience is more likely to agree with your reasoning when it is based off of commonly-held beliefs, and your opponent will be categorically denied the ability to accuse you of not caring.

3) Concede well-reasoned points

There are generally two methods by which you can challenge an argument. First is by challenging its logical structure, either by its premises, conclusions, or use of various logical fallacies. This is effective when you are debating people like Howard Dean, or your local college student, who sputter nothing but arguments dripping with fallacious reasoning. However, when you are debating more well-reasoned individuals, as you should be doing, you may need to apply the second technique, which is to concede a point yet offer a stronger alternative.

An example can be provided by the work of this organization. We have a policy position which is opposed to the inheritance tax, yet we recently published a learned work arguing for the inheritance tax, because we believed that the argument itself was a good one. The argument was that because heirs do nothing productive that directly warrants their wealth, taxation of their financial windfall is a relatively more productive exercise than taxing the actual earned income of individuals, which is productively earned. It is a solid point, which we concede. Yet we believe a larger, more persuasive principle is that the leaving of an inheritance is the free choice of the individual who earned it – no different than his choice to, say, blow it on seven Bentleys – and that the usurpation of that free choice indeed violates the freedoms of those who actually did earn it.

Many issues in public policy have intelligent positions on both sides, and you will need to offer a compelling case why your position is more relevant and beneficial than your opponent's. If your points are argued well enough, they should be able to stand down any of your opponent's points, even without directly attacking his. Such concessions not only fail to hurt you, but they also improve your standing in the eyes of your audience. It is a skilled debater who can graciously concede his opponent's point without skipping a beat.

It will be impossible to be prepared for every argument your opponent makes. He will surely cite some obscure statistic or random study, or even make an a priori argument you've never heard. Rather than accuse him of being a liar, you can confidently reply, "Even if that were true, it still doesn't change the reality that…"

4) Don't confuse passion with hatred

It is easy to agree with the first point about respecting one's opponent. The easiest way to respect someone's viewpoint that you disagree with is to shut up and not say anything about it. But debating is necessary for the health of American democracy, and those in a debate might likewise find it difficult to passionately advocate a position without seeming too harsh on its supporters.

Your denunciation of your opponent's position should be as passionate as necessary, as long as it doesn't denounce the person directly. There is nothing wrong with pointing out the stupidity or ignorance of a policy, especially if you can prove it. Respecting your opponent does not mean respecting what he believes or what he promotes.

No matter what the subject matter or contentiousness of the debate, remain positive in your speech and steer the conversation toward commonalities and possible solutions.

5) Sometimes, the best debating technique is not to debate at all

The following settings are wholly inappropriate in which to engage in political discourse:

a) The workplace. Unless you work for the Prometheus Institute, the workplace is neither the time nor the place for political posturing. Your coworkers should know very little, if anything about your political ideologies. It is impossible to maintain a professional relationship with your coworkers when they think you are a conservative fascist or liberal hippie.

b) A date. Dates should be devoid of political discussion, at least for the first few dates. Dates should be fun and not boring. For the vast majority of people, politics is excruciatingly boring. It also has the capability to cause deep personal divisions, convincing your date that you are a person with whom she can form little ideological common ground. You can bore and/or enrage your girlfriend with your personal politics or philosophy after you've been together for a while.

c) Weddings, funerals, and other public events. The nature of such events creates the cardinal rule that divisive and/or contentious topics should not be discussed at them. No matter how respectful and reasonable your arguments, remember, some people will still hate your viewpoints, no matter what. Save them for an arena where it is appropriate to discuss such things.

d) The classroom. If you sympathize with any conservative position, you will find yourself ideologically outnumbered on a college campus, and often find yourself in a classroom with a professor who despises your opinion. Do not debate him. Realize that if you truly challenge your professors politically, you're guaranteed no higher than a B+ in the class. Educate yourself on your own time so you know why they're wrong, and save that knowledge for someone who is going to care. Also realize that you gain more intellectually than the ass-kissing liberals in your class who are being taught their own opinions – you get a free peak at the game plan of the opposition. It's like being in your opponent's huddle, if you use the knowledge right.


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