I've said it before and I'll say it again: Americans suck at arguing about politics.
Most of what the political "arguments" we see on social media aren't arguments at all, they're what I call "cheering."
Cheering is basically yelling "our team rules!!!" or "your team sucks!!!" really loudly. It's a great way to get people who are already on your side to get off their butts and pay attention, and maybe even get involved in political activism. That's obviously important. But it's also obvious that just yelling "my side is awesome" isn't going to persuade anyone to join my side.
Actually, cheering can often be the opposite of persuasive. What looks like an awesome cheer from our side usually looks moronic and evil from the other. In fact, members of the other side often use our cheers to make us look bad to people who we might have been able to persuade to join us. Both sides do this, and actually it's one of the only forms of argument that we're any good at.
Conservative cheering looks pretty dumb (to a liberal)
Here's what it looks like when conservatives "cheer"
The left's plan to destroy America is almost complete! Politico: Pew: White Christians no longer a majority - https://t.co/r2lr3u0kqy— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) November 23, 2015
LIBERALS LITERALLY WANT TO #CRUSHTRUMP AND KILL HIM BECAUSE THEY'RE VIOLENT, LAWLESS, GODLESS, THUGS & CRIMINALS WHO HATE THE CONSTITUTION.— Mark Dice (@MarkDice) March 19, 2016
If you're a liberal, these tweets seem pretty dumb. Obviously they're not persuasive, they're not going to convince a liberal, or even a moderate, that the left wants to "destroy America" or that liberals are "VIOLENT, LAWLESS, GODLESS, THUGS & CRIMINALS WHO HATE THE CONSTITUTION."
Of course, liberals aren't the intended audience of these tweets. They're just cheers, meant for people who already think that liberals are violent thugs out to destroy America. But because social media is what it is, we liberals can see them too. And then we show them to our liberal and moderate friends to make the case that conservatives are insensitive/dumb/mentally unhinged etc.
We do this all the time. Just think about how many posts you see on liberal social media that are really just highlighting dumb posts by conservatives on social media:
congrats to peggy for having the worst take of the day at 12:08AM pic.twitter.com/yHNMDF8T4B— marisa kabas (@MarisaKabas) September 7, 2017
Liberal cheering looks pretty dumb (to a conservative)
This all works the same way when we're the one's doing the cheering
As a massive hurricane bears down on us, please remember that one American political party literally does not believe in science.— Michael Ian Black (@michaelianblack) September 9, 2017
If you're a liberal, this thread by Michael Ian Black is a pretty effective piece of cheering. It encapsulates a lot of the frustration we feel when so many GOP politicians refuse to accept the overwhelming consensus of the worldwide scientific community that "climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks."
Now, I'm sure if you pressed him, Black would admit that in this tweet he was not using the world "literally".... uh, literally.
Obviously there are lots of Republicans who do "believe in science" (whatever that means?).1 There are many Republicans who are brilliant scientists themselves (I personally know a few). And then there's Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA), and their 14 GOP co-sponsors, who introduced a resolution to acknowledge climate change and work to address it.
So I think it's fair to say that Black was being hyperbolic here. That's OK. When you're cheering, hyperbole and exaggeration are good, while nuance and accuracy tend to cramp your style.
"......please remember that many (but not all) members of one American political party do not accept the scientific consensus that human activity has contributed significantly to climate change, or else DO accept the scientific consensus but nevertheless oppose strenuous efforts to address it because they think that the efforts won't make much of a difference in regards to climate change but WILL adversely impact economic growth,"
doesn't have quite the same ring to it does it? Plus it's more than 140 characters.
What happens on liberal social media DOESN'T stay on liberal social media
The problem is that even though this tweet was aimed at liberals, Conservatives can read it too. And to them it looks just a moronic and intolerant as the Ann Coulter and Mark Dice tweets above look to us.
The exaggeration and hyperbole that made Black's tweet such an effective bit of cheering for liberals play right into the conservative narrative that liberals are the "anti-science" party, who claim to have a monopoly on truth while simultaneously changing the facts whenever they don't fit our ideological narrative. So now it becomes a rhetorical weapon for conservatives:This entire thread is a beyond-parody example of angry, ignorant, condescending bubble leftism. https://t.co/KXQKRaMU41— David French (@DavidAFrench) September 10, 2017
Damnit! What do I do? My uncle has his PHD in science. Has been scientist for 40 years and voted trump! What do I tell him now?— Kambree Kawahine Koa (@KamVTV) September 10, 2017
Science says fetuses are living humans. You don't hear me saying the Democratic Party "literally doesn't believe in science." https://t.co/tDUMcOTg8a— Jonah Goldberg (@JonahNRO) September 10, 2017
These tweets may not seem persuasive to you, but they are convincing to many moderate and conservative Americans (people like Steve) who don't particularly like liberals and still aren't sure what to think about climate change. These are precisely the people that we need to convince if we want to actually do something about it, but we've handed conservatives exactly what they were need to convince these people that Democrats are the intolerant party that refuses to "believe in science.""Believe in science" or "follow the scientific method"? Cuz the latter's *literally* impossible (control groups, etc.) for global temps https://t.co/VtrUqFkiAx— Breitbart News (@BreitbartNews) September 10, 2017
This would be true even if Black's criticism was 100% "literally" true. Even if every single Republican in American did not "believe in science," going up to one of them and saying "you don't believe in science!" isn't going to change their mind - it's not an argument, it's just name calling. So at best it's just going to make them hate you even more, which is the last thing you want to do if you are trying to convince them to change their mind.
Political "Arguments" in AmericaIf we want to make American a more liberal country we obviously need to convince some people who are not liberal to become liberal. But in America we spend most of our time cheering, and calling the other side names, and in doing so we end up making them even more angry at us than they were before.
Ironically, even though Americans suck at arguing for our own positions, we're superstars when it comes to noticing when other people make bad arguments. We're totally inept at actually persuading that someone who doesn't already agree with us to change their mind. But both liberals and conservatives are really good at noticing what anyone on the other side, even if it's just 0.00003% of them, say or do something stupid or evil. This is, apparently, the limit of our rhetorical skill as a country.
We could be doing a lot better. If good arguments and sound rhetorical tactics can convince Nazis, KKK members and fundamentalist homophobes to change their minds, then convincing a moderate or conservative to support limitations on greenhouse gases can't be that hard.
It seems like we should at least try. Or at least stop trying to make things harder for ourselves.
1 Actually, climate scientists themselves will tell you that the link between climate change and hurricanes is more tenuous than often reported in the media. Based on what we know about physics, it seems like warming oceans should lead to bigger hurricanes, but because we've only been able to accurately measure hurricanes for the last 50 years or so (which isn't very long, given the timescales that climate change works on) we don't yet have enough data to know if that's actually happened.