In any sphere of culture, leaders are trying to sell themselves and their views. In fact, the very reason these leaders often rise to the top is their ability to persuade people of the rightness of their views and decisions.
Yet, often they are so charismatic, so persuasive, that we are easily duped by poor reasons leading to flawed conclusions. Sometimes the charismatic leader purposefully distorts the truth in ways that even careful observers have difficulty detecting. Other times, as any of us can do, the charismatic leader accidentally distorts the truth by unintentionally using fallacious reasoning.
For these two reasons—not wanting to be duped by other people and not wanting to distort the truth ourselves—it is important for us to be aware of the perennial logical fallacies and distortion techniques. Here are twelve of the most common:
- The Personal Attack. This classic logical fallacy (often called the “ad hominem”) is one in which the speaker insults the opposition rather than directly addressing that person’s arguments or conclusions. For example, “Socrates’ arguments about the good life are worthless. What could a man that ugly know about anything?” Contemporary politics is a lush environment for the proliferation of personal attacks. Consider Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment, her description of Tulsi as “a Russian asset,” Gabbard’s description of Clinton as “the queen of warmongers,” or Donald Trump’s descriptions of Carly Fiorina as ugly and as a “horseface.”
- The Straw Man. This fallacy involves argument by caricature. It purposefully misrepresents the opposition’s view in order to make its position look better. It comes from the idea that it is easier to knock down a character made from straw than one made from muscle and bone. For example, Pete Buttigieg famously constructed an unprovoked straw man attack against Mike Pence, arguing the Vice President is a hateful bigot because he is an evangelical Christian. (Nice Babylon Bee article here –sorry, couldn’t help it.) Sometimes conservatives commit the fallacy by equating Bernie’s Socialism Lite® or social democracy in general with communism.
- The False Dilemma. This fallacy is a favorite. It tries to make you think there are only two alternatives regarding a given issue or course of action. For example, “Either you support President Trump uncritically or you are an enemy of conservatism.” Or, “Either you fault President Trump holistically or you are an enemy of America.” On the left, the Green New Deal has committed a cornucopia of such fallacies, arguing, for example, that we must either get rid of air travel and cows (with their mephitic effluvia) and give us free college or the world will perish. Similarly, a certain crown on the right insists that a border wall is the only way to address illegal immigration.
- The Red Herring. This fallacy is one in which the speaker or leader distracts the audience from the issue. (The phrase comes from the story of a man using a strong-smelling smoked fish to divert his dogs from chasing a rabbit.) Thus, when confronted with an issue, the person on stage never responds to the issue but instead distracts the audience by telling a joke, insulting his opponent, etc. On the left, the notion of “equality” is actually a red herring in debates over “marriage equality,” for what is being debated is not that all should have equal access to marriage, but rather how marriage should be defined. By couching the debate in terms of equality, it distracts from the move to redefine marriage itself. On the right, perhaps the most famous red herring was committed by Ronald Reagan (during a debate with Walter Mondale) when asked if, at 73, he was too old to be President. In response, he quipped, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
- The Genetic Fallacy. This fallacy dismisses an idea by pointing to its source. The classic example of this is, “Could anything good come from Nazareth?” Another example is, “Why should we believe what Pundit A has to say about politics? Has he ever served in office?” On the left, Dianne Feinstein committed this fallacy when, at Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2017, she chided Barrett because “the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s a concern,” insinuating that if Barrett is a committed Christian, she cannot rule impartially as a judge. On the right, Donald Trump lashed out at U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who was presiding over lawsuits related to Trump University, saying Curiel could not rule impartially on Trump’s affairs since Curiel is of “Mexican heritage” and Trump was simultaneously promising to build a wall to keep Mexican immigrants out.
- The Two Wrongs. This fallacy assumes that two wrongs make a right. In other words, one side justifies wrong actions merely because the other side has also done wrong. For example, a small child is confronted by his mother for cursing at another child, but in response says, “But he cussed at me first.” In the political arena, examples abound. “But Bush.” “But Obama.” “But Clinton.” “But Trump.” “But the Republicans….” “But the Democrats…”
- The Wrong Side of History. This fallacy assumes that newer is better. For example, “Religion is an outmoded attempt to understand reality. It puts you on the wrong side of history. Thus, religious liberty laws are outmoded and should be replaced by non-discrimination laws.” On the left, Barack Obama was very fond of this fallacy regarding his administration’s inevitable success. Some think that he elevated this fallacy to the level of his own personal literary genre. On the right, Kellyanne Conway sometimes uses the trope to dismiss Democrats on tax cuts, care for veterans, and children’s health care.
- The Blameshift. With this fallacy, a person denies responsibility for something he or she did, or blames an opponent for things over which that opponent has no control. On the left, during the rollout of the Affordable Care Act and its subsequent pervasive shortcomings, Democrats were quick to place blame on Republicans and their opposition, despite the fact Republicans constituted the House minority and their consistent criticism often proved true but was ignored. Another example is Hillary Clinton’s argument that Russian interference and the collusion of US intelligence agencies cost her the 2016 election. On the right, this fallacy has been committed when Republicans blame Democrats entirely for government shutdowns which in fact are often committed by both sides.
- The Conflation of Legality and Morality. This fallacy confuses the legal “is” with the moral “ought.” On the left, we often hear questions such as, “Can’t you social conservatives stop debating abortion and whining about Roe v. Wade? It’s legal, isn’t it? So, let it go.” On the right, Sarah Fabian famously conflates legality and morality (in relation to the 1997 Flores Agreement) when she argued that the government does not need to provide toothbrushes and soap in order to meet the “safe and sanitary” conditions of the agreement.
- The Sky Promise. This distortion of the truth is one in which a person “promises the sky,” making guarantees that he cannot possibly fill. On the left, Elizabeth Warren famously promised to pay for universal healthcare without raising taxes on the middle class. Her plan to do so, however, can’t possibly work. On the right, Donald Trump famously promised that he would build a wall and that Mexico would pay for it. Lately he’s backtracked on a promise that was unlikely in the first place.
- The Stereotype. This fallacious argument draws too big or strong of a conclusion based on unrepresentative or paltry evidence. This sort of unwarranted generalization often is made in relation to nationality, gender, race, or religion. On the left, Hillary Clinton characterized those of flyover countries who support Donald Trump as “a basket of deplorables.” On the right, some commentators have argued for travel bans against Muslims, suggesting that many or most Muslims are terrorists.
- The Slippery Slope. This type of argument suggests that taking a minor action will necessarily lead to major or even absurd consequences. For example, “repeal Roe v. Wade and the next thing you know, they’ll be telling women that they’re not allowed to drive or vote.” Or, “ban semi-automatic assault rifles and, the next thing you know, we’ll be living in a totalitarian state.”
Well, there you have it, folks. A dozen ways politicians (or any of us, for that matter) can distort the truth, whether intentionally or unintentionally. I know I’ve committed my share of logical fallacies. Maybe you have too. So let’s tighten up our own arguments even while we are on guard against their use by our political leaders.