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“Liberals Always Make Good Arguments”–But Does That Matter?

My wife and I were taking a walk yesterday with our three month old baby.  The last thing any of us had in mind as we enjoyed the relatively cool (or, at least, not sweltering) D.C. weather was a political debate, but when one presented itself, I didn’t back away (bear with me on the set up, I’m trying to amuse myself, I guess!).

As we were eating a bagel at a table outside a small cafe, a man who looked like he was in his 70s asked us if he could have our table when we left.  We said sure, and when he emerged from the cafe with his wife, we got ready to leave.  As we were getting up, the 70-ish man made some small talk, found out we live in D.C. and asked us how we like it.  We said we like it pretty well.  He said he couldn’t live here himself because there are "too many liberals".  I asked him what he doesn’t like about liberals, and he mentioned government taking over health care.  I responded that the new health care law preserves the current private insurance system–it only gives people better access and, in some cases, will subsidize people who can’t afford private insurance.  Noting his apparent age, I then asked him whether he likes Medicare.  He said yes.  I pointed out that this is a government program.  He said that maybe it would be a good thing if Medicare could be done by someone other than the government.  I responded that this would no longer be Medicare.  The older man responded that "you liberals always make good arguments."  I smiled and said that an important thing to remember is that we’re all Americans (one of the things I was trying to do during this conversation was to demonstrate to the man that liberals aren’t all the monsters he seems to imagine us to be).

I’m not presenting this anecdote as some kind of triumphal gotcha moment.  I’m writing about this because it gets at something I’ve been thinking about recently–or two things.  First, how do we deal with reflexive right-wing hatred of liberals?  I could see this in the way the man I spoke with spoke about "liberals" with disgust–and I mentioned to him that generalizations are dangerous e.g. I wouldn’t damn conservatives as a group.  Second, how do we get anywhere if facts don’t matter?  I made a very basic observation when I noted that Medicare is a government program, but it’s a basic fact that often gets lost in discussion about health care.   I wouldn’t really describe my observation as an "argument", it was simply an observation of fact–like saying that the police and fire departments are funded by tax dollars ( at least usually).  To the man I was speaking with, however, it was simply an "argument", one point of view, but not a fact.

I am asking about this because I really don’t know the answers.  How do you make progress in debates where facts are seen as a subjective viewpoint?  How do you speak to people who see "liberals" as untouchable, the kind of people you wouldn’t want to share a city with?  I had an idea that perhaps a speaking tour would be useful–liberals who don’t fit stereotypes could tour the country, speaking to audiences who, like the man I spoke with, only know liberals in the abstract, as something weird, something to be avoided.  The tour could feature liberal military veterans, police officers, senior citizens–people who don’t fit the dirty hippie stereotype.  Of course, there are problems–would anyone come to listen?  If people did come, would they really want to listen, or would they be coming to scream at the liberals?  Could it actually be dangerous for speakers on the tour?  How could this be set up, logistically?

On the second problem, making facts matter in debate, I’m also unsure how to improve things.  Changing the way media insiders cover stories would be a start–people need to get away from the balance trap, the idea that there are always two sides to a story, whether it’s global warming, torture, or right wing extremism.  But this wouldn’t help much when it comes to people who watch Fox News and listen to Rush Limbaugh.

I have a lot more questions than answers.  Does anyone have any ideas?  It’s frustrating…after speaking with this man, I wondered whether it is even worth it to try.  Our discussion was polite and calm, but it felt fairly useless.

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Chris Edelson

Chris Edelson

Chris is a lawyer and professor at American University who writes frequently about current political and media issues. His writing has also been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Metroland (Albany, NY), and at