against caricaturing your opponents

If you spend a lot of time, as I do, on sites like Steve Benen’s Washington Monthly and The American Prospect, you can get at least a daily dose of outrageous remarks by Republican politicians and conservative celebrities. These comments often combine fallacy, bias, malice, and myth. (As an example from the last few days, The National Review says this week that Barack Obama “likes tyrants and dislikes America [and] is trying to get control over as much of our lives as he can.”)

Meanwhile, if you spend time reading the open comments on newspapers and other news sources, you can find plenty of similarly outrageous statements all on your own. In addition to the flaws cited above, these amateur contributions tend to be poorly spelled and ungrammatical.

Spend your time this way, and you can convince yourself–or reinforce your presumption–that you are dealing with an opposition that’s stupid and mean. Compromise then seems foolish. Unfortunately, large numbers of Americans vote for the same candidates as the shock jocks and right-wing politicians whose frightening quotes fill liberal blogs. So it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that you are dealing with a fairly benighted population. Either there is something fundamentally wrong with them, or else the media system is somehow capable of misleading the public and distorting their views.

But selective quotation is a very poor “research method.” As long as the pool of material available for quotation is large, you can get any result you want. I think it would be possible, for example, to fill a daily blog with nothing but thoughtful and conciliatory comments by elected Republicans. Likewise, conservative bloggers are able to find outrageous statements by liberals to fill their pages.

Whatever the truth may be about “conservatism,” selective quotation is no way to find it. Not only is this method intellectually lax, it yields bad strategy. It leads us to misunderstand the real reasons that substantial numbers of Americans disagree with us and thus prevents us from persuading them. For instance, relatively conservative Americans may fear the Democrats’ health plan because they are skeptical that the government can keep its promises to cut costs, not because they believe that President Obama is a socialist Muslim born in Kenya who hates America.

Although I’m sure some Republicans in Congress disagree, many leading ones seem to share Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s view that President Obama is headed for “a massive electoral defeat.” I think they have been reading too much of their own side’s polemics (including selective quotations from liberals that seem far from mainstream views). As a result, they are not revising their own policies in ways that might help them to regain a majority. The long-term polling trend suggests that they really only have about 20-25% of the population on their side and should be seriously rethinking their positions:

But there is equal danger for Democrats. The President has but a bare majority–less on difficult issues such as health care and climate change–and faces valid doubts and criticisms. The worst way to get majority support for a Democratic legislative agenda would be to convince ourselves that we are only dealing with Michelle Bachmann, Glenn Beck, and the National Review.

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