“If you can’t win by reason, go for volume.” The philosopher Calvin once said that. Not the French theologian from the 16th century, but the sage, tiger-befriending boy from Bill Watterson’s comic strip. Only eight years old and Calvin had already begun cultivating a belligerence befitting the age-old American pastime of the shouting match. Any argument can be won, provided you shout enough.
This branch of Calvinism enjoys many more followers today than the philosophy of his long-dead namesake. Its practice is almost universal in American politics. For the campaign season, our public discourse is pruned and packaged into sets of tirade-ready soundbites.
Voters and politicians don’t abandon reason entirely. Many political attack ads justify themselves with a short blurb about their target’s legislative history. One ad from the National Rifle Association tells Louisianans, “Mary Landrieu voted to take away your gun rights,” imperiling the “safety” and “freedom” of their state. I suppose it helps the political process seem a little more substantive. But nobody adds too much detail for risk of confusing or boring voters with a muddled message.
Still, even the most quick-thumbed TV-watchers will end up sitting through hundreds of political ads. Four billion dollars will be spent on congressional races this year. The newly permissible spending in modern politics has turned campaigns downright Gatsbian — longer, louder and more colorful. Four billion dollars buys thousands of hours of ad time, most of which are reserved for dimly lit attack ads, in which brow-furrowed mothers tell you that a former senator tried to end grandpa’s social security or that a two-term congressman tried to interfere with their reproductive health. These ads eventually sink in, not by reason, but by roar and repetition.
It’s the entirety of their appeal: Americans have a hard time caring about politics. In leaf-reddened late October, candidates have to compete for our attention with each other as much as they do with the Halloween-themed commercials of Toyota, Verizon and Subway. Voter turn-out determines many elections, meaning they’re as much a choice between a candidate and a couch as a choice between two candidates. Candidates respond to the task of getting us off our couches not by informing us, but by browbeating us.
Usually with something catchy: “Stop the War on Women!” is a more moving slogan than “Most Republicans vote to limit women’s access to contraception, equal pay for equal work and paid maternity leave, among other rights!” The latter can’t quite compete with the imagery of congressional Republicans ordering drone strikes on our nation’s yoga studios. “Vote like your safety depends on it. Defeat Mary Landrieu” is an excitable interpretation of the Louisiana senator’s vote for universal background check legislation, which, incidentally, enjoys support from 92 percent of gun-owners and 86 percent of Republicans. But those details get lost in compression. Americans like their rallying cries the way they like their reality TV protagonists: sexy and dumbed down.
The political shouting matches are dramatic but, contrary to what Calvin may think, nobody wins. Sure, politicians may get elected, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they made the best case for the role of government. They just shouted louder. Voters head to the polls hardly because they are convinced, but because they have been baited into outrage.
In the long run, everyone loses. Nobody wants to share a beer with their congressmen these days, and our congressmen are even less keen on sharing beers with each other. Partisan politics are frustrating, but to a degree they’re easy to understand. We’ve been well-trained to bluster on about our political beliefs, and to bluster more loudly should anyone question them. At such a volume, additional voices don’t provide perspective or common ground. They create a cacophony in which no one is listening and there’s very little to listen to.
Volume forces us to react, but reason forces us to think. Why do we believe what we believe — because we’ve been told to repeatedly, or because we can make sense of it ourselves? Reasoned disagreement makes us smarter and more empathic. By listening to disparate beliefs, we realize which of our beliefs stand on sturdy reasoning and which wobbly ones we need to reconsider. Another convenient consequence of actually listening to people with whom we disagree is that we learn more than the perfunctory reasons they believe what they do. It may not feel like winning, but, within reason, politics don’t have to be a zero-sum game.
To be sure, the stakes are high. But at the very least we could try to act like we are more accommodating and more mature than eight-year-olds.
Nathan Kohrman is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.