A Fallacy in Motion

The President of the United States, Barack Obama.

Charles Lipson is a walking fallcy, a professor of political science who prefers to use that credential that he might promote crackpot theses that ignore the details. To wit:

Charles LipsonWhen presidents become unpopular, they are no longer welcome on the campaign trail. They’re trapped in Washington, watching their party abandon them. It happened to Lyndon B. Johnson, whose presidency collapsed amid protests over Vietnam. He left Washington only to visit his Texas ranch and assorted military bases, where he gave patriotic speeches to silent battalions. Richard Nixon, drowning in Watergate, was confined to Camp David and a few foreign capitals, where he was greeted as a global strategist. Jimmy Carter, crushed by the Iranian hostage crisis and a bad economy, stopped traveling beyond the Rose Garden.

Now, the same oppressive walls are closing in on President Barack Obama. He is welcome only in the palatial homes of Hollywood stars and hedge-fund billionaires or the well-kept fairways of Martha’s Vineyard.

Well-written, indeed, if it was listed as fiction. But it’s not, and that means it’s a fraud.

The simple fact is that President Obama is avoiding states where Democrats are running competitively but against the odds. To wit, why would Alison Lundergan Grimes want President Obama onstage with her? She’s running against one of the most powerful Republicans in the country, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader who has so botched his handling of the Senate Republican Conference that Grimes can even run close.

Lipson’s criticism about palatial homes is unusual; most political science professors would suggest it very unwise to ignore rich donors during an election season, but Lipson would prefer you believe otherwise because it helps his poisonous narrative. Christopher Keating noted that Obama’s second trip to Connecticut in a week—a scheduled rally—was cancelled because, well, he’s the president and has a job to do. You know, ebola and all that. The palatial home Lipson refers to would appear to be in Greenwich, where Obama spoke at a fundraiser for Gov. Malloy.

The president is also welcome in Wisconsin, hoping to boost support for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke.

One wonders what the political science would say of someplace like Kansas? Would the president’s presence in the Sunflower State help or hurt Democratic gubernatorial challenger Paul Davis? Given that the incumbent Republican presently has the slightest edge in an otherwise dead heat (less than a percent), the question might be how Gov. Sam Brownback found himself in such a weakened position that he must actually face the possibility of losing. Then again, it’s not much of a question: Brownback and his Republican allies have wrecked the states finances.

In that context, it’s hard to lose faith in Obama if one never had any.

Also, we might wonder at what the political science professor has to say about Year Six Elections, but the question only arises because Lipson ignores it.

And Lipson shares a common argumentative trait with one of the right wing’s lowest minds, Jennifer Rubin. That is to say, look who is missing from the calculation: Republicans.

They have their presence on Lipson’s stage, but only as shadows, and without names.

Most American voters are pragmatic. They want solutions, not rigid ideas. They want effective implementation, not blame shifting. When things don’t work out, they want candid explanations and a change of direction. President Obama has failed on all counts.

Lipson offers no real evidence to support that assertion of failure, merely his word as a political science professor.

Americans haven’t just lost faith in the president. They have lost faith in virtually all important institutions. That includes Congress and, increasingly, the U.S. Supreme Court. The only institution to escape is the U.S. military, which is still highly regarded. Gallup says it “has never measured lower levels of trust in the federal government to handle pressing issues than now. That includes the Watergate era in 1974.” The president, who stands atop the government pyramid, is damaged most by this loss of confidence.

Let us consider the detail of these shadow players. Congress? Well, sure, there’s the Republican-controlled House in which the Speaker cannot pass his own damn bills because his fellow Republicans refuse. That’s happened at least twice; there was “Plan B” in December, 2012 while the country faced a potential fiscal crisis of incalculable scale, and also the immigration bill earlier this year. To the one, we can almost feel sorry for Speaker Boehner, who saw his House leadership suffer a backbench junta led by a freshman Senator from Texas last year. To the other, that doesn’t excuse Republicans.

How about the Senate? After all, that’s under Democratic control, right? But then, Republicans seem to feel the filibuster is an every day tool. And what are we supposed to say of the Senate Minority Leadership that once filibustered its own bill? What? Is the political science professor somehow unwware that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell filibusterd his own debt ceiling bill?

And while it is true that the president stands as a symbol “atop the government pyramid”, Lipson either presumes or hopes that voters really are that stupid, which in turn is why he calls them pragmatic.

Is that somehow confusing? This all comes down to a question of narrative, and Lipson, like Rubin, does his part to sell the fact-free narrative.

Lipson also provides a paragrpah about terrorism that relies entirely on presuming a fact-free narrative true. It really is an incredible display of arrogance:

In Obama’s case, the public’s loss of confidence is compounded by a dawning realization that the White House is more likely to conceal and spin than to offer truthful explanations. To take two obvious examples: During the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly took credit for killing off al-Qaida and withdrawing all American troops from Iraq. Now, faced with rising attacks from Islamic terrorists (words the president never utters), he offers a lawyer’s brief, saying only that he destroyed “core” al-Qaida. Even that is a tissue of fabrications. The Khorasan Group, which the U.S. is now fighting in Syria, is simply a cell of al-Qaida’s senior leadership. Meanwhile, a cluster-bomb of Islamic terror groups, most affiliated with al-Qaida, have sprung up across the Middle East, the Maghreb, and sub-Saharan Africa. As for Iraq, the president now says America’s catastrophic withdrawal was not his doing at all. The Baghdad government is completely responsible. Apparently, he just read about it.

Nothing in that paragraph rings true unless one already believes the fact-free narrative. Lipson would not be able to support his claim that “Obama repeatedly took credit for killing off al-Qaida”; in order to believe that accusation, one must distort the president’s words about the end of Osama bin Laden. Lipson appears to be reading his news from the headlines of CNS News, an invention of conservative icon L. Brent Bozell III. Withdrawing the troops? Indeed, he did execute the Status of Forces Agreement obliged by the Bush administration, and over the objections of many Congressional Republicans.

But notice also how much of a campaign speech that paragraph is; Lipson is playing politics, not analyzing the political science.

The GOP is also absent from his criticism of Lipson’s criticism of the situation in Iraq and Syria, preferring to ignore the inability of Congressional Republicans to do their jobs last year, and also the fact that Speaker Boehner sent the House during election season so that his fellow Republicans would not have to record any difficult votes.

Given this dismal record, it’s not surprising the public has lost faith. Whether the topic is Ebola, the Islamic State, the IRS, National Security Agency spying, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or a dozen others, the White House spins, the Congress does nothing, and the public’s trust in our basic institutions drains away. That’s bad news for the president. It’s far worse for our country.

The closing paragraph is particularly odious. To run down the list: Ebola—Congress is on vacation by Speaker Boehner’s will. Daa’ish—Congress is on vacation by Speaker Boehner’s will, and we might also reiterate Republican cowardice when this came up last year. IRS—One might think that a political science professor would be capable of recognizing that there is no IRS scandal, but apparently one would be wrong in the case of Charles Lipson. NSA—This sort of mess started before Obama’s presidency, and requires Congress—all of Congress, not just Democrats—in order to find a solution. VA—A long historical problem in these United States, again requiring Congress in order to find a solution.

True, Lipson note that “the Congress does nothing”, but it is equally true that Republicans make exactly zero appearances in their critique. Apparently, governing just isn’t their job.

The linchpin of Lipson’s argument is simply that “the president … stands atop the government pyramid”.

The rest is simply a matter of narrative, and political narrative is the particular swindle Charles Lipson is selling.

To the other, it is also observable that Republicans are winning this war of words. Take executive authority as an example; Republicans have been quite successful in tarnishing the president’s reputation this way. And the argument goes this way: The president is using too much executive authority. We can impeach him, but we don’t want to do that. Therefore, we have no recourse but to sue him. Oh, and by the way, don’t ask Congress to do anything about immigration; Obama should use his executive authority.

And that’s really all it takes. The constant repetition has its effect, and the critics are never obliged to prove a damn thing. Then again, Lipson is a political science professor, and the only possible explanations for such omissions are either ignorance or dishonesty. And, in truth, it’s hard to believe such observable processes fall outside the purview of political science.

An appeal to authority, also known as argument from authority is a fairly simple logical fallacy: A is asserted as an expert on B. Within the purview of B, A asserts C. Since A is an expert on B, C must necessarily be true.

It is a common trope in politics, and a favorite tool of conservatives. Those who recall the disastrous rape remarks that derailed the U.S. Senate candidacy of Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO2). While many were shocked by his comments, the truth is that his sin was to say it out loud; the argument has been around for decades and surfaces every once in a while.

The appeal to authority came through one Dr. John C. Willke, formerly the head of the National Right to Life Committee:

The idea that during rape, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down” to prevent pregnancy, as Mr. Akin said, has surfaced periodically among anti-abortion advocates over the past two decades, usually involving the term “forcible rape” to refer to what Mr. Akin called “legitimate.”

Dr. John C. Willke, a general practitioner with obstetric training and a former president of the National Right to Life Committee, was an early proponent of this view, articulating it in a book originally published in 1985 and again in a 1999 article. He reiterated it in an interview Monday.

“This is a traumatic thing — she’s, shall we say, she’s uptight,” Dr. Willke said of a woman being raped, adding, “She is frightened, tight, and so on. And sperm, if deposited in her vagina, are less likely to be able to fertilize. The tubes are spastic.”

Leading experts on reproductive health, however, dismissed this logic.

“There are no words for this — it is just nuts,” said Dr. Michael Greene, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School.

(Belluck)

There is a reason why Akin’s sin was to say it aloud. Follow the appeal to authority. Dr. Willke is a doctor; the doctor says this medical-sounding thing; therefore what the doctor says must necessarily be true. And it worked as long as it was confined to the anti-abortion movement itself. But Dr. Greene of Harvard Med was hardly the only medical professional to reject Willke’s Uptight Thesis.

Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association crystallized the appeal to authority:

Mr. Akin’s statement did have supporters. Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, defended Mr. Akin on his program “Focal Point,” citing “John Willke, who is an M.D. by the way — a lot of these ignoramuses on Twitter are not.”

He read from Dr. Willke’s 1999 article, which described what is “certainly one of the most important reasons why a rape victim rarely gets pregnant, and that’s physical trauma.”

He continued with the article: “To get and stay pregnant a woman’s body must produce a very sophisticated mix of hormones. Hormone production is controlled by a part of the brain that is easily influenced by emotions. There’s no greater emotional trauma that can be experienced by a woman than an assault rape. This can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy.”

Mr. Fischer concluded: “In other words, ladies and gentleman, Todd Akin was exactly right.”

And there you have it. Mr. Lipson’s version of the fallacy is a bit more subtle, but the absence of specific details—owing to their general lack in reality—to support his argument, omission of Republicans from the narrative, and general apathy toward facts pretty much describe his column. Yet he’s a political science professor. Just like Dr. Willke must be right because he is a doctor, so must Mr. Lipson be right because he is a political science professor.

And it is all calculated dishonesty.

And it might well work.

____________________

Lipson, Charles. “Losing faith in Obama”. The News Tribune. 22 October 2014.

Keating, Christopher. “Obama, Down Nationally, Welcome In Connecticut”. Hartford Courant. 14 October 2014.

Associated Press. “Obama stopping in Wisconsin, among few states he’s still popular, in tight gubernatorial race”. The Star-Tribune. 22 October 2014.

Berman, Russell. “Boehner cancels vote on ‘Plan B’, says cliff solution up to Democrats”. The Hill. 21 December 2012.

Werner, Erica. “Boehner pulls House border bill amid conservative revolt”. The Rundown. 31 July 2014.

Kapur, Sahil. “McConnell Filibusters His Own Bill To Lift Debt Ceiling”. Talking Points Memo DC. 6 September 2014.

Lucas, Fred. “Obama Has Touted Al Qaeda’s Demise 32 Times since Benghazi Attack”. CNS News. 1 November 2012.

Belluck, Pam. “Health Experts Dismiss Assertions on Rape”. The New York Times. 20 August 2012.

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