The Third (Straw) Man and the Art of Controversy

When the apologists of the two-party state and duopoly system of government confront advocates of third party and independent politics, one of their most common strategies is to set up a third party straw man.  The straw man fallacy is one of the most common rhetorical sleights of hand employed in our political discourse.  Instead of confronting an argument head on, and directly refuting it point by point, the speaker misrepresents the position he is arguing against, and then refutes the misrepresentation without ever addressing the actual point(s) of contention.  In his Eristical Dialectics, widely known as The Art of Controversy, Arthur Schopenhauer likens this stratagem to a diversion:
This trick consists in stating a false syllogism. Your opponent makes a proposition, and by false inference and distortion of his ideas you force from it other propositions which it does not contain and he does not in the least mean; nay, which are absurd or dangerous. It then looks as if his proposition gave rise to others which are inconsistent either with themselves or with some acknowledged truth, and so it appears to be indirectly refuted. This is the diversion, and it is another application of the fallacy non causae ut causae.
We find this strategy at work in an opinion piece for North Carolina's Times-News Online by Stephen Black.  Typically, a rhetorical sleight of hand is cleverly hidden within an argument or discourse.  Surprisingly, however, Black's argumentative strategy is effectively announced in the very title of the article: "Third-party miracle workers? Yeah, right."  Try as I might, I have yet to find a single article on the internet in which a third party or independent advocate asserts that third party or independent politicians are capable of performing supernatural acts, though this position is imputed to them on a fairly regular basis by the apologists of the Democratic and Republican parties.  Black writes:
We need a third political party, the columnists and talking heads shriek.  Yes, friends, it is the cry of the desperate once again. Let us have a third party made up of members of the same human race that has bollixed things up so hopelessly in the past.  Oh, but these third-party members will be different. Somehow. They won't be tempted by booze, sex, money and power like those Democrats and Republicans.

These third-party boys and girls will be decent and idealistic, unlike the Democrats and Republicans. The third party will be made up of members with no thought of being re-elected or rewarded like the Democrats and Republicans. Their only goal is to steer America into a problem-free future. No recession. No racial issues. No war. Only peace and prosperity.  In other words, third-party members won't be human with the same nature as Democrats and Republicans.  Let us visit Mars. Perhaps we can find some creatures on that planet who resemble third-party members . . .
Politicians, believe it or not, are ordinary human beings. Third-party politicians would have to be, if not Martians, then angels. They would have to be if they are to be different from the regular two-party politicians.
So, the argument here is that supporters of alternatives to the Democrats and Republicans believe that third party and independent politicians would be superhuman representatives capable of resolving the problems of war and peace, racism and discrimination, wealth and poverty, and so on, by mouthing the proper incantations and waving the magical political wand.  Of course, this argument is completely absurd, which is why it is a straw man.  Ironically, however, it may well be that there is an element of projection at work here as well.  Is this not precisely how Democrats and Republicans portray their own favored candidates?  Is this not the foundational belief for the Republican Church of Ronald Reagan, the Democratic mythology of Camelot, and the Cults of George Bush and Barack Obama? 

The difference between a third party or independent representative on the one hand, and a Democrat or Republican on the other, is not ontological.  It is political!  And that is the point.  An Independent politician will not be able to magically resolve the wars abroad.  But he or she would likely forward a position that is excluded from our discourse by the Democratic-Republican party duopoly.  An Independent politician will not be able to magically solve the nation's economic problems.  But he or she would be able to address them from a position that is not hobbled by the ideological orthodoxies of the major parties.  And so on.  The election of third party and independent candidates to the US Congress, state legislatures and local councils would not automatically result in the passage of landmark legislation.  But it would change the balance and relations of power in those institutions, while providing a voice for those who are unrepresented by the Democratic and Republican parties. 

Aside from his specious arguments against third party and independent political advocacy, the commentator above provides only one argument in favor of supporting the two-party system.  Actually, 'argument' is probably too charitable a term, since the claim is another fallacy, namely, the appeal to tradition.  Another excerpt, now from the conclusion:
We the people must understand that the two-party system made up of saints and sinners and every which way in-between is a system that has worked in the past. . . . We the people, however, must learn to instruct our leaders to compromise, not draw lines in the sand. . . . Compromise makes sure that everybody gets something. That is healthy government. . . . We the people who are deeply concerned about our nation can change our government for the better. We must, however, utilize the two-party system and the politicians we already have. We do not need to usher in a new system or another party. To believe this will change the direction our government is heading is merely sticking our heads in the sand.
The appeal to tradition – i.e. we must stick with the two-party system for all time because it worked at some point in the past and is the system we are stuck with in the present – is a fallacy because it rests on the denial of circumstantial, situational, historical, political and social change.  A bipolar, two-party state is literally incapable of representing the myriad interests that make up a diverse, multi-polar society like the United States today.  Arguably, the majority of Americans go without representation in government, whether adequate or inadequate.  To believe that doubling down on the Republican and Democratic parties will change the direction our country is headed is to stick one's head in the sand.


Samuel Wilson said...

It looks like Black was trying to refute an assumption -- straw man or not -- that a third party would automatically be a force for moderation. The more disturbing thing about his refutation is the implicit assumption that human nature results in Bipolarchy!

d.eris said...

Black does appear to be a political Manichean. He certainly doesn't make that point about moderation explicitly. He seems more to believe that working outside the two-party system is a form of extremism.

Ironically, he makes an explicit call for compromise while categorically refusing any form of compromise with Independent and third party advocates.

DavidPSummers said...

Such tactics have become common throughout US politics. (Though I agree with that position that the low standards of debate in the US is also a product of the two party system). I have no idea how many times I've heard an approach dismissed as "no panacea". As if, unless it can guarantee to solve every single problem we have, it isn't worth trying.

TiradeFaction said...

I think there's been some research to suggest multi party systems, particularly ones that utilize proportional representation tend to create more moderate forms of governance (albeit ones that are highly responsive to the electorate).

This would make sense, since when a hodge podge of genuinely differing views hold seats adjacent to one another, it's only natural they'll have to compromise some of the time at least.

Ross Levin said...

This writer just doesn't seem intelligent at all. That, or he's completely delusional. His writing is just absurd - not because I disagree with what he's saying, which I do, but because he jumps to so many conclusions that are so out of sync with reality. It doesn't seem like there's an original idea running through him in any way. I find it amazing that people like that so often get the opportunity to preach.

TiradeFaction said...

"Their only goal is to steer America into a problem-free future. No recession. No racial issues. No war. Only peace and prosperity. "

I wonder where he really got that from. I've only ever heard this shit from guru cult leaders (who were probably lying anyway), I've never heard third party or independent candidates/supporters to say this.

"The election of third party and independent candidates to the US Congress, state legislatures and local councils would not automatically result in the passage of landmark legislation. But it would change the balance and relations of power in those institutions, while providing a voice for those who are unrepresented by the Democratic and Republican parties. "

Not only that D.eris, just imagine say, if in California the Greens (or whatever X Progressive/left wing/whatever) party won 5% of the electorate and it resulted in a few seats, the pressure it would bring upon the Democrats, parallel to the Libertarians to the Republicans, or what not. Yeah they wouldn't get everything, or even most of what they want, but they'd extract meaningful compromises from the powers that be, or risk getting replaced.

d.eris said...

I think this author might be writing in response to a couple articles that had previously been published in the same paper calling on people to register as Independents, and work toward the election of independent and third party candidates. (See:

The fact that his response is so intellectually dishonest is a sign that the supporters of the two-party state are really becoming desperate these days.