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The Politics of Conversation versus The Politics of Argument

By Jack Kerwick
web posted January 31, 2011

President Barack Obama and others have not infrequently referred to the commerce that transpires between partisans as a national "conversation."  This is telling, for whatever else may be said of these exchanges, they cannot be said to constitute a "conversation."

Conversation is a distinct species of discourse marked by, among other characteristics, a friendliness or hospitality of which this national exchange to which President Obama refers has not a trace.  While the hospitality intrinsic to conversation precludes neither seriousness nor argument, it is most certainly incompatible with combativeness, and the utter rancor of which this "national conversation" is ridden is positively anathema to genuine conversation.

Yet it has been quite some time since "conversation" has been a proper metaphor for American politics.  At its best, the latter is best understood in terms of an "argument."  But regrettably, it has been at least as long since American politics has been at its best.

It isn't, of course, that at any one period our politics belonged entirely to the mode of conversation, while at another period this mode was superseded by that of argument; rather, both the modes of conversation and argument are ideal types, abstractions lent by a certain reading of the American political experience from its inception to the present.

So as to put some flesh on this distinction, we would be well served to consider two founding American documents: the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  While the former represents our politics conceived as a conversation, the latter emblematizes its conception as an argument.

The Constitution is a concrete symbol of the politics of conversation.  In affirming the existence of multiple sovereign authorities, i.e. the federal and state governments and their respective division of branches, the Constitution inspires this sort of politics.  Conversation is constituted, after all, by diverse voices, each as relevant to the conversation as all of the others; unless the partners to it recognize this crucial fact—that is, unless each interlocutor is as vigilant as every other against succumbing to the ever present temptation to transform it from a dialogue to a monologue—there is no conversation.  Similarly, in its specification of numerous "checks and balances," the Constitution secures just that wide distribution of power and authority in which our liberty consists, each party to it having no less and no more "a say" in the conversation for which it supplies the framework than any other.

The Constitution prescribes, not actions to be done, but obligations to be fulfilled in doing whatever it is citizens choose to do.  The rules of conversation are the conditions of any and all conversation, but they do not specify utterances: they tell us, not what to say, but how to say whatever it is that's said.

Finally, the Constitution looks to nothing beyond itself, no crises to be "solved" or trans-Constitutional Ideals to be pursued.  In like fashion, conversation is its own reward, and while any given conversation may have as its objective an as-of-yet unrealized goal, this is not essential to its nature as conversation. 

The Declaration of Independence, in contrast, is an emblem of argument.  The Declaration asserts "unalienable Rights" that, because they are allegedly possessed by all human beings, transcend the Declaration and, for that matter, every human society.  The perfection of these "Rights" is the end for the sake of which politics, whether American or otherwise, exist.  Also, being "self-evident," the "Rights" affirmed by the Declaration are the axioms of a "proof," not only of the original argument that Jefferson made on behalf of his American brethren and against the King of England, but of every "argument" that has since been undertaken, both here and abroad, for "the solution" of one "problem" after the other.  

The impulse to view politics in terms of an argument has always been powerful among Americans, and at no time more so than today.  Contemporary politics is all about surmounting crises of one sort or another.  Yet while argument is an endeavor of much value, and while there is obviously nothing inescapably uncivil about it, there is no circumventing the fact that its participants are related to one another as adversaries, and that without much effort, the contentiousness of which it consists can shade imperceptibly into heated confrontation.  
There is no denying that the argument is an enterprise promising much satisfaction, but the point is that it is an enterprise that, as such, is oriented toward the realization of an end that lies beyond itself, a "conclusion" or "solution" to a "problem" or an "issue."  But if the objective of an argument is to "solve a problem," then the desire to control or plan is the proper disposition on the part of disputants.  Arguments are not infrequently referred to as "fights," and arguers as "opponents" who seek to "defeat" one another; in this we discern the link between argument and physical confrontation.

Arguments can be good or bad.  The "national conversation" to which President Obama alludes is in reality an argument, but insofar as it consists of arguments ad hominem, non sequiturs, arguments from pity, arguments from force and the like—logical fallacies that the father of Western logic, Aristotle, identified long ago—it is an argument gone to the bad.

The point in all this is that "rhetoric" aside, to the extent that, as a body politic, we have long since traded in the conversation for the argument, we have chosen a less civil and more arrogant politics. ESR

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. is the proprietor of the new blog The Philosopher's Fortress which can be found at www.jackkerwick.com.  

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