It’s election time, and once again we find ourselves feeling like exhausted Artic explorers on the edge of calamity as we plough through a blizzard of political arguments. Economic arguments, strategic arguments, arguments of every conceivable kind are fired at us relentlessly from the TV, the radio, the newspapers, the internet and the people around us.
Given the argumentative fervour that engulfs us in a run-up to a general election, it seems odd that our experience of political argument should be so predictable, dull and frustrating. And perhaps it’s no surprise that many of us lose interest and switch off.
Take, for instance, the viewing figures for the historic leadership debates. The first one attracted over nine million viewers, while the second debate, a week later, saw viewing figures plummet to four million.
Even the astounding surge in Nick Clegg’s popularity following the first debate couldn’t be traced to a set of enlightening and cogent arguments. Clegg’s success wasn’t based on arguments at all, it was created instead by the unpopularity of his two opponents – and the incontestable fact that he isn’t either of them.
Mind your lip
I know, of course, that it is the vagaries of the floating voter that make our democratic system work. Some people will refuse to vote for Cameron, whatever he says, because they’re disturbed by the thinness of his upper lip. Another group find Brown’s facial tics a bit of a turnoff. While others can’t wait to stick a cross next to Clegg’s name because they think he’s got an honest face… and so it goes.
But what about those of us who take the time and trouble to examine the various arguments in detail, and think of ourselves as considerably more sophisticated than your average floating voter? Surely our political arguments have solid foundations which help us make more informed and open-minded choices – don’t they?
Ironically, I think political debate is at its most tedious when it’s conducted by well-informed partisans – and this is because the better informed and more politically committed a person is, the less likely they are to be persuaded by counter arguments.
How believable, for example, is the following about-face? Picture two well-lubricated dinner party guests launching into a heated political debate – one a lifelong Conservative, the other a traditional Labour supporter. As their discussion gathers momentum, it becomes increasingly apparent to the other guests that the Labourite’s superior grasp of logic, coupled with her ability to marshal facts, is helping her clinically dismantle her opponent’s position – and credibility.
As the Labourite’s unremitting assault continues, her opponent’s resistance begins to crumble. Suddenly, in the face of his adversary’s superior fire-power, he waves the white flag. After a brief pause for thought, he plucks his Conservative Party membership card from his pocket and rips it into tiny pieces. Taking a deep breath, he announces solemnly to the gathering that from that day forth he will commit himself to the Labour cause with every fibre of his being.
Hang on a minute – in real life this kind of thing just doesn’t happen, does it? Political beliefs run deep and no amount of evidence to the contrary is going to shake them. We feel their rightness in the core of our being and even when they’ve been given a bit of a mauling, like those of the hapless Conservative diner, our usual response is to go off and hunt for more evidence to back them up – alternatively, we might put some of the arguments that have been used against us under the microscope so that we can discover their cracks and expose their weaknesses.
But just as Alice couldn’t see the point of a book without pictures, I struggle to see the point of two people having an argument if there’s little – or no – chance of either of them being persuaded to change their mind. Surely, the goal of debate is persuasion, isn’t it?
You can’t have everything
We know you can’t have everything in life, and this was never more true than in the realm of political debate. Floating voters are persuadable but eccentric – well-made arguments are of less interest to them than the shape of candidate’s nose, or the cut of their suit.
The well-informed, conviction voter will happily argue the night away with you as long as you’re willing to accept that they are unlikely to shift their position one iota. Their knowledge surrounds them like an impregnable castle wall – they know what they think, and they’re prepared for battle!
So if we choose persuasion, we have to abandon argument; and if we choose argument, we have to wave goodbye to the thought of persuasion. And this is frustrating – because an argument without the possibility of persuasion is just plain dull!