Chapter 8 – Part 1: The Art of Arguments

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on Tuesday, May 29, 2007

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Knowledge of the political mind empowers us with tools we can use to reach out to others and share ideas effectively. An essential tool is the argument frame. It provides a means for expressing values persuasively to convince others of the inherent validity of our own perspectives while also motivating them to embrace our perspectives. This installment explores the components of the argument frame in political discourse.

Last week we looked at strategic initiatives during our discussion of Chapter 7. This week I would like to introduce the first part of the discussion of Chapter 8 about the art of arguments. The argument frame is presented today. Next week I will introduce the power of narratives as a special kind of argument and conclude this final chapter of Thinking Points.

The Characteristic Features of Successful Arguments

Chapter 8 starts out with the following:

The moral worldviews, visions, values, principles, frames, and language all come together in political arguments. As we look at arguments, we find certain characteristics common to all effective and successful arguments…

Here are the characteristics listed:

  • The have moral premises, that is, they are about what is right.
  • They use versions of contested values taken from a particular moral worldview.
  • They have an implicit or explicit narrative structure, i.e., they all tell stories with heroes, villains, victims, common themes, etc.
  • They also serve as counterarguments: They determine arguments on the other side.
  • They have issue-defining frames that set up the problem and the solution.
  • They use commonplace frames – frames known so widely that they resonate immediately, whether true or not.
  • They use language with surface frames that evoke deeper frames.

How Argument Frames Work

Remember that frames are not simply about words. They are the mental structures by which we understand and interact with the world. Frames can be constructed using other frames (as argument frames are). The general argument frame has several parts:

  1. Moral Values: In order for something to be right or wrong there must be an evaluative component. Progressive arguments tend to express the values of empathy, responsibility, fairness, opportunity, and so on.
  2. Fundamental principles: The context for the argument is built around principles that are assumed to be valid for the situation under consideration.
  3. Issue-defining frame: Each argument will be about a specific issue or problem.
  4. Commonplace frame: The argument will “make sense” because it expresses a commonplace understanding of how the world works – even if this understanding isn’t true!
  5. Inference: Information provided by the combination of these values, principles, and frames combines to generate a novel perspective particular to the argument.

This general structure acts like a template that structures all progressive arguments. Someone who is attuned to politics can easily understand or construct a “new” argument from a set of principles and values when a new issue is defined.

More About Commonplace Frames

Commonplace frames are used to understand how the world works. Some are relatively accurate. Others are grossly inaccurate. Either way, they are used in political arguments and it is important to recognize them for three reasons: (i) so you’re not taken in by the false ones, (ii) so you can recognize and counter them, and (iii) so you can factor them out to see the more general argument frame.

Commonplace frames are not a matter of moral values, fundamental principles, issue-defining frames, or even surface frames. They are taken as a matter of common knowledge. Let’s look at some examples that are frequently used in political arguments:

Bad Apple Frame
The saying “A bad apple spoils the barrel” implies that if you remove the bad apple or a small number of bad apples, the others will be fine. The rot is localized and will not spread. Rot is a metaphor for immorality here. Those who are rotten are considered to be isolated morally bad people. This commonplace frame was used to limit the inquiry into torture as a systemic problem of the military during the Abu Ghraib scandal. It was similarly applied to limit investigations into the culture of Enron by selecting a few executives (Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay).

Tradition is Right Frame
This frame says that if some idea or institution has “passed the test of time,” then it is right. This frame is used in arguments against allowing gays and lesbians to marry, where it is argued that marriage has traditionally been between a man and a woman.

Teenage Minimum Wage Frame
This frame is more specific and claims that most people earning minimum wage are teenagers in their first jobs (say, at fast food restaurants) who are supported by their parents. This understanding is then used to argue against raising the minimum wage, which would allegedly kill off entry-level jobs since wages will be too high. Both claims are false, but this commonplace frame is widely accepted.

Adaptation Frame
This frame says that if some phenomenon is natural or pervasive, you can’t overcome it and may as well accept it and adapt as well as possible. Liberals use this to argue for legalizing marijuana: People are naturally going to smoke pot, just like they are going to drink alcohol, and you may as well legalize it. Liberals also use it when supporting sex education: People are going to have sex anyway, so the best thing to do is educate them about safe practices and birth control methods. Safe abortion advocates use it too: Many women with unwanted pregnancies always have, and will, get abortions, so it’s best to make abortion safe and legal.

Slippery Slope Frame
There is a point on a scale where everything appears to be fine. But there is also a tendency or force operating so that moving a short distance farther on the scale will lead to more and more movement in the same direction, culminating in disaster or some ludicrous results. Conservatives have used this frame to argue against minimum wage. Many progressives fear the recent Supreme Court decision about “partial birth abortions” (a conservative frame) is a slippery slope to getting rid of Roe v. Wade.

All of these commonplace frames are used in arguments so it is helpful to learn how to spot them. Hopefully, this list will assist you in learning to recognize them.

Example: Obama on the Estate Tax

The following statements provide us with an example of a successful progressive argument by Senator Barack Obama of Illinois on the proposed repeal of the estate tax from June 7, 2006.

First of all, let’s call this trillion-dollar giveaway what it is – the Paris Hilton Tax Break. It’s about giving billions of dollars to billionaire heirs and heiresses at a time when American taxpayers can’t afford it…

I’m eager for the American people to choose. Because if people want their government to spend one trillion dollars – an amount more than double what we’ve spent on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror combined – on tax breaks for multimillionaires and multibillionaires, then the Republican party is your party.

If the American people want to borrow billions more from the Chinese, spend billions more in taxes to pay the interest on our debt, and watch billions cut from health care and education and Gulf Coast reconstruction, then the Paris Hilton Tax Break is your tax break.
This isn’t about saving small businesses and family farms. We can reform the estate tax to protect these Americans. We can set it at a level where no small business or family farm is ever affected – and we can do it in a way that doesn’t cost us a trillion dollars. In fact, we’ve offered to reform the estate tax in this way time and again…

I would ask the American people one question. At a time like this – a time where America finds itself deeply in debt, struggling to pay for a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, security for our homeland, armor for our troops, health care for our workers, and education for our children – at at time of all this need, can you imagine opening Forbes magazine, looking at their list of 400 wealthiest Americans, and realizing that our government gave the people on that list over a trillion dollars’ worth of tax breaks?

I know I can’t imagine that. And I would bet that most Americans can’t imagine that either. So if the Republicans want to bring up their Paris Hilton Tax Break to use it as an election issue later, I say go for it. Because I can think of no better statement about where and how we differ in priorities than that.

There is a lot going on in this argument that is worth looking at. Here are the argument frame components for this argument:

  1. Moral Values: Empathy, fairness, and responsibility. We care about people and have a responsibility to act on that care in a fair manner.
  2. Fundamental principles: (a) The common good – individual goals depend upon the use of the common wealth for the common good. (b) Fairness – you should get what you deserve. Hard-working, needy people deserve the schools and hospitals those dollars can provide more than heirs who didn’t earn the money and who will get half of it anyway.
  3. Issue-defining frame: The issue here is the estate tax.
  4. Commonplace frame: The economic equivalence frame – which asserts that not taking in money owed is economically equivalent to giving it away. It can also be expressed as not giving money to those owed being equivalent to taking it away.
  5. Inference: Keeping the estate tax allows us to use our trillion dollars where it is most needed – on our health and education infrastructure and on protecting our troops – instead of giving it away to people who neither need it nor deserve it.

Obama’s statements also use a narrative structure, complete with heroes and villains: Ending the estate tax is a threat to the most vulnerable people – taking away money for what they desperately need. They are the victims. The villains are those who would take it from them – conservative legislators and some of the nation’s wealthiest families, who have spent millions of dollars lobbying for the repeal of this tax. The hero is you, the voter, who can change the course of the nation. You can rescue tens of millions of worthy and needy people from the clutches of villainous conservatives who want to transfer a trillion dollars from the common wealth of hardworking Americans to wealthy individual heirs and heiresses who didn’t earn it and don’t need it.

All of this undermines conservative arguments while promoting a progressive vision.

Rational Arguments?

How does the argument frame compare with the rationalist approach critiqued in Chapter 3? Do we consciously deliberate about the facts to demonstrate which ones correspond most accurately to the real world? Hopefully, by now we can all agree that this is not the way arguments work in politics. What do you think? How has your burgeoning understanding of cognitive science changed how you think about political argumentation?

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Go on to the next discussion in the series.