Where’s the Argument?

P.J. O’Rourke notes that, while the volume has gone up, actual debate has largely gone out of American politics, as both sides merely hector their own.

Arguing, in the sense of attempting to convince others, has gone out of fashion with conservatives. The formats of their radio and television programs allow for little measured debate, and to the extent that evidence is marshaled to support conservative ideas, the tone is less trial of Socrates than Johnnie Cochran summation to the O.J. jury. Except the jury—with a clever marketing strategy—has been rigged. I wonder, when was the last time a conservative talk show changed a mind?


A generation ago there wasn’t much conservatism on the airwaves. For the most part it was lonely Bill Buckley moderating Firing Line. But from 1964 to 1980 we went from Barry Goldwater’s defeat with 38.5 percent of the popular vote to Ronald Reagan’s victory with 50.8 percent of the popular vote. Perhaps there was something efficacious in Buckley’s—if he’ll pardon the word—moderation.

I tried watching The O’Reilly Factor. I tried watching Hannity shout about Colmes. I tried listening to conservative talk radio. But my frustration at concurrence would build, mounting from exasperation with like-mindedness to a fury of accord, and I’d hit the OFF button.


Does the left have this problem? Do some liberals feel as if they’re guarding the net while their teammates make a furious rush at their own goal? NPR seems more whiny than hectoring, except at fundraising time. There’s supposed to be a lot of liberal advocacy on TV. I looked for things that debased freedom, promoted license, ridiculed responsibility, and denigrated man and God—but that was all of TV. How do you tell the liberal parts from the car ads? Once more I resorted to books.

To answer my question I didn’t even have to open Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. But having done so, I found these chapter headings: “Ann Coulter: Nutcase,” “You Know Who I Don’t Like? Ann Coulter,” and “Bill O’Reilly: Lying Splotchy Bully.”

Michael Moore’s previous book was Stupid White Men, titled in a spirit of gentle persuasion unmatched since Martin Luther, that original Antinomian, wrote Against the Murderous and Thieving Hordes of Peasants. Moore’s new book, Dude, Where’s My Country?, contains ten chapters of fulminations convincing the convinced. However, Moore does include one chapter on how to argue with a conservative. As if. Approached by someone like Michael Moore, a conservative would drop a quarter in Moore’s Starbucks cup and hurriedly walk away.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rich says:

    It’s not about the argument. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong. That would require thinking adults who actually want to find the correct solition to the days problems.

    It’s about power and who has it and who doesn’t.

  2. M. Murcek says:

    If one side doesn’t take the other seriously, how can they expect to be taken seriously themselves? I get completely turned off by over-the-top leftist invective and ad-hominem ad nausaem. By the same token, when I hear some right-leaning commentator get the facts just plain wrong, or begin a diatribe with “I heard something about this, but I don’t really have all the facts…” I feel the same need for a shower that I get from seeing a parent smacking their child in the aisle at the grocery store. An intelligent debate? That’s all gone now. That was a different place and time, if it ever existed at all.

  3. Joel Gaines says:

    I agree – most don’t want debate, they just want to be heard.

    People have a great, new modicum of communication, which allows them to speak immediately. Easily done when in a format where there is no need to justify a position with logic.

  4. You got it Joel. To many want to be heard and don’t care to listen. I’m at the point where I can’t watch the yell shows anymore…where opponents square off and try to get more audible sound bites out than the opponent. No one ever addresses what their opponent says, they just respond with an equal and opposite accusation toward the other side.

  5. Hal says:

    I find it telling that O’Rourke didn’t bother to read the two liberal examples he chose. As a writer himself, he should really understand the fuction of a chapter title. Would he have taken the time to actually read the content of the chapters, he would have found something entirely different.

    And this seems pretty much a metaphore for the whole debate. Now that the right has set the playing field and determined the rules of the game, they are now whining that there is no debate. Worse, they don’t even bother to listen to the liberal side, merely looking at the surface and casting aside the content based on the label.

    It’s like killing your parents and then claiming mercy as an orphan.

  6. Boyd says:

    Hal, I’ll freely admit I can’t bring myself to read Franken’s or Moore’s books. Then again, I don’t purport to know what they say in them, either.

  7. James Joyner says:


    O’Rourke spends the first half of the piece condemning conservatives–Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, and O’Reilly (although I don’t think the latter qualifies). He does the chapter title bit with both, too.

  8. Hal says:

    Granted he did both. But if he actually would have read the Franken book he would have found a massively well documented argument for each of the chapters. So what’s his point? They both have interesting titles? Or that only conservatives don’t have an argument? Or what?

    Clearly, he’s trying to make the point that Liberals and Conservatives are just two sides of the same coin – kind of a pox on both their houses. The way he comes to this conclusion – or at least the only way he presents his evidence – is based on purely observing the right. The reader is left with the distinct impression that Franken is equivalent to Hannity, Limbaugh and Coulter.

    All based on the titles of the chapter.

    So either it’s a massive hack piece that really doesn’t tell us anything at all or it’s a piece that’s designed to equate the massive shouting on the right with the miniscule voice of the left.

    Either way, it’s kind of ridiculous. . .

  9. James Joyner says:

    O’Rourke’s mainly a humorist. (As is Franken, for that matter.) But I’d say Michael Moore is more vitriolic than any of the people on the list above. Sean Hannity is fairly innocuous, although not much of an arguer. Both Franken and Coulter make interesting points but–and this is O’Rourke’s point–essentially nobody that doesn’t already agree is going to read it because the tone is so insulting and over-the-top.

  10. Hal says:

    Which goes back to my original point. The right created the playing field, and set up the rules. O’Rourke is part of that team and has played his own part in the mess. Now he’s whining that no one’s listening to each other because the debate has been degraded. Boo hoo. Kind of a horrible situation that has been brought up long before O’Rourke suddenly noticed it. Heck, all one has to do is look at the way the “debate” occured regarding the Iraq war.

    So I’ll modify my assertion that this is equivalent to killing your parents and then complaining that you’re an orphan.

    Really. If the market place is now a bunch of people shouting past each other, I really don’t think anyone can blame the left. The fact that the left is starting to get into the act is only understandable. But just do a content analysis over the last 2 decades. You won’t find any left wing shouting out over the radio, and any that you do has a vanishingly small market share (if it’s measurable at all). Up until 2 years ago, the right wing viewpoints were the major best sellers, with hardly any representation from the left.

  11. James Joyner says:


    You’re missing his point. PJ spends the first several paragraphs talking about the Republicans. He then says there’s not really a Leftist equivalent for the Right’s talking heads and then has a couple paragraphs noting that the Left seems to be following suit.

    And I’m not really sure what part PJ played in all this. He has poked fun at both sides–but mainly himself–for decades.

  12. Hal says:

    Okay then, this must be my own confirmation bias at work here. As to P.J. O’Rourke, I’ll let your assertation stand as I’d have to dig out my books by him and they’re buried in the basement bookshelves somewhere. I’ll just concede the argument and slink away in shame.

  13. Attila Girl says:

    I’ve always found Bill O’Reilly completely unwatchable: he’s rude and shouts his guests down. He’s a horrible man.

    It absolutely drives me around the bend when people describe him as a “conservative,” since 1) he isn’t, and 2) they are trying to paint conservatives in a negative light by associating him with us.

    I truly wish people would stop watching him, and that his show would just get cancelled. There’s nothing thoughtful going on there.