The Failure of Rogerian Argument

Many of our blog posts have been concerned with ethical argumentation in the public sphere and the need for a more civil discourse. It might be time to say “Fuck that.” Obama’s recent capitulation on, well, everything seems to point to the fact that Rogerian Argument, goodwill towards your opponent, or ethical argumentation has been squeezed out of our public sphere. Oh, we can blame it on anything we want. Blame it on the media. Blame it on the Electoral College. Blame it on the anachronism that is our Constitution. Blame it whatever you want. It’s there. And there’s no point in ignoring it.

While Obama slides into his Clintonesque rope-a-dope and tries to wait for the GOP to punch themselves out, there’s really no hope that anything will change. I’ve never been a big Obama fan. I never bowed down to his golden calf, never bought into his whole rhetoric of transformation. The only thing I really based my vote on him for was that he was a slight evolutionary step above McCain/Palin. Of course, Obama started out with a conciliatory tone. Much as Bush 2 did at the start of his presidency. Whether or not Bush 2 actually believed in his cross-the-aisle rhetoric, he quickly realized that Karl Rove’s maxim “A majority is 50% plus one” was a better strategy for maintaining power than trying to compromise on every little thing. And it worked. And, yes, he’s probably one of the most hated presidents ever, but you can’t say that he didn’t get things done.

Obama has been far more reluctant to go to the mat. Some chalk it up to incompetence. Some chalk it up to pragmatism. I’m not really sure where I stand. The only thing that’s certain is that it’s been an abject failure. He’s been labeled a terrorist, a socialist, and everything else you can imagine, and instead of firing back, he’s decided the better route would be to try and meet his opponents on common ground, such as with his “health care summit” with congressional Republicans. None of this really worked. His poll numbers are abysmal. His party suffered a huge defeat in the mid-term elections. He’s pretty much on the run.

What’s the alternative? Well, maybe he could take a stand. He could abandon his reconciliatory tone and start to fire back. I think that Sen. Bernie Sanders’ recent speech provides a good model. It might be something Obama should copy. His strategy of reaching across the aisle and trying to compromise with his opponents has certainly failed him to this point. And there’s no reason to think it is going to succeed now that his opponents are actually in power. It certainly wouldn’t lower his poll numbers.

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2 Responses to The Failure of Rogerian Argument

  1. Jim Porter says:

    Personally I think that Rogerian persuasion is a terrible idea for politics — or at least a terrible rhetorical stance for the president’s presentation of political ideas. In the public realm the president is supposed to be a leader primarily, not a mediator. She/he is supposed to represent a clear, strong, and principled stance and stay on message — here’s is what we should do and why, here is what we should do and why — exactly what Obama has not been very good at. Obama tries to mediate in the public realm, which ends up (a) looking weak, confused, unprincipled, and (b) moves the debate to the mushy center right from the beginning. (His approach to handling the federal pay cut, particularly in terms of kairos, was one of the dumbest rhetorical/political moves I have EVER seen.) The place for mediation is behind the scenes, in cabinet meetings and backrooms, not in public statements, not in front of the media. The more I read about Lincoln, the more I see him as understanding political rhetoric better than anyone. He was a good mediator, but he didn’t mediate in public, he mediated in cabinet meetings.

  2. mwatts1280 says:

    Hilarious, Andy. I think you’re right on in terms of where Rogerian argument breaks down. Rogers misses the rather important point that reaching out to your opponent does not assume that you two will touch lovingly on neutral, level ground. To throw Booth in the mix (just because he’s on the brain for this paper) and make a super overly simplistic statement, Obama seems to be practicing Listening Rhetoric while the folks in the political world around him are practicing Win Rhetoric. You’re extending a hand with an olive branch and your opponent extends a hand with a club. Yeah, all the goodwill in the world won’t will someone else not to serve their own interests if this benefits them more than coming together w/u.

    Nice post.

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