Argumentum ad populum

ARGUMENTUM AD POPULUM…. Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi recently hosted a post-midterm discussion with David Gergen and Gary Hart, and it led to an exchange I’ve been meaning to mention.

Taibbi: To me, the main thing about the Tea Party is that they’re just crazy. If somebody is able to bridge the gap with those voters, it seems to me they will have to be a little bit crazy too. That’s part of the Tea Party’s litmus test: “How far will you go?”

Gergen: I flatly reject the idea that Tea Partiers are crazy. They had some eccentric candidates, there’s no question about that. But I think they represent a broad swath of the American electorate that elites dismiss to their peril.

Hart: I agree with David. When two out of five people who voted last night say they consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party, we make a huge mistake to suggest that they are some sort of small fringe group and do not represent anybody else.

Taibbi: I’m not saying that they’re small or a fringe group.

Gergen: You just think they’re all crazy.

Taibbi: I do.

Gergen: So you’re arguing, Matt, that 40 percent of those who voted last night are crazy?

Taibbi: I interview these people. They’re not basing their positions on the facts — they’re completely uninterested in the facts. They’re voting completely on what they see and hear on Fox News and afternoon talk radio, and that’s enough for them.

Gergen: The great unwashed are uneducated, so therefore their views are really beneath serious conversation?

Taibbi: I’m not saying they’re beneath serious conversation. I’m saying that these people vote without acting on the evidence.

Gergen: I find it stunning that the conversation has taken this turn. I disagree with the Tea Party on a number of issues, but it misreads who they are to dismiss them as some kind of uneducated know-nothings who have somehow seized power in the American electorate. It is elitist to its core. We would all be better off if we spent more time listening to each other rather than simply writing them off.

I’m still not entirely sold on the idea of characterizing Tea Partiers as some kind of distinct political contingent, separate from the Republican base. It’s not a “movement” in any meaningful sense. (If 40% of participating voters identified themselves as members of the Republican Party’s conservative base, would anyone find that especially noteworthy?)

We’re talking about an amorphous group of activists with no clear agenda, no leadership, no internal structure, and no real areas of expertise. Its passionate members, while probably well meaning, when they’re not disagreeing with one another about what’s important, appear to have no idea what they’re talking about.

The Gergen/Hart argument is that their numbers lend them credibility. But isn’t that a pretty clear example of argumentum ad populum? “Tea Partiers aren’t crazy, because there’s so many of them”? Taibbi argued that these are activists who aren’t relying on evidence or reason to shape their political worldview. Gergen’s response seems to be that this doesn’t really matter, since a lot of people appear to no longer rely on evidence or reason.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to Gergen’s criticism about elitism and resisting the urge to dismiss politically-engaged activists, simply because their ideas are without merit. If a huge chunk of the electorate is pushing the country in one direction, the political world should take that seriously.

But isn’t the problem here that Taibbi’s criticism is fair? Gergen wants Americans to listen to one another, which strikes me as more than reasonable. But what do we do when we’re done listening, and we realize that a contingent is saying things that don’t make sense?