Nathan J. Robinson’s “Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments”
A seriously good look at some seriously bad arguments.
This week (Feb 14–17), I’m in Australia, touring my book Chokepoint Capitalism with my co-author, Rebecca Giblin. We’re in Sydney tonight (Feb 15) (more tickets just released!), then Canberra (Feb 16/17).
In Responding to the Right: Brief Replies to 25 Conservative Arguments, Current Affairs founder Nathan J. Robinson addresses himself in a serious, thoughtful way to the arguments advanced by right-wing figures, even when those arguments aren’t themselves very serious:
Robinson is a keen student of right-wing media. He reads the books, watches the talk shows, listens to the podcasts. This is a lot of work, because the right wing media machine is extremely repetitive, often unhinged, and frequently grossly offensive. But, Robinson argues, a close study of right-wing media is worth it for what it reveals: the currents and fracture lines, and the underlying beliefs that the whole edifice is built upon.
Robinson sets up his subject with an essay on the curious un-reason of conservative arguments, which are inevitably styled by their proponents as “rational” (with left arguments condemned as irrational, softheaded and sentimental). But conservative arguments, motivated by fear and discomfort with uncertainty, are frequently, demonstrably, historically, provably irrational.
The arguments against letting everybody vote — proffered in the mid-19th century — threatened societal collapse if the “wrong” people were given a say. Despite society’s manifest failure to collapse, these same arguments were advanced again for the next 150 years (and are still repeated today) in conservative circles.
Likewise, the general conservative pessimism that reform isn’t possible — bad regulations can’t be replaced with good ones, bad working conditions can’t be improved through unionization. These arguments are repeated again and again, impervious to evidence.
Robinson describes conservativism as a comforting, fixed ideology that allows its adherents to move through the world without having to question themselves: you broke the law, so you’re guilty. No need to ask if the law was just or unjust. This sidelines sticky moral dilemmas: no need for judges to ask if something is good or fair — merely whether it is “original” to the Constitution. No need for a CEO to ask whether a business plan is moral — only whether it is “maximizing shareholder benefit.”
There are rigid, dogmatic leftists, too (whom Robinson decries) but conservatives who are quick to point out how Marxist dogma can lead to ghastly atrocities — as in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge — are completely indifferent to, say, the horrors of US imperialism in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Conservative arguing techniques break down into a dozen categories:
- Speculative fiction: “More immigrants will destroy the social fabric of our society” — anything we can vividly imagine is certain to occur. Likewise, “companies that abuse their workers will lose those workers when they quit.”
- Saying things rather than proving things: “Central America is poor because bad laws restrict capital formation” — asserting dogma as though it was obviously true, rather than a proposition in need of evidence and proof.
- Extrapolating from narrow examples: “All the private housing in Chicago is terrible, therefore public housing is impossible to do well.” No attention is spared for counterexamples that disprove the proposition or analysis that asks why this situation arose.
- Lofty abstractions rather than actual thought: “Nothing is more important than the freedom to explore the destiny of one’s soul and risk it at every moment” — it’s inspiring, but what does it mean? How does it apply to the climate? Family leave? Health care?
- The rhetoric of “reason, fact and knowledge”: “Facts don’t care about your feelings” — but “facts” are just what conservatives call their “feelings.”
- Assumptions about human nature: “Man, acting without religion, is unable to break any chains that oppress him” — unproven, blithe statements that humans are naturally greedy, or hierarchical, or lazy, etc. These are unfalsifiable superstitions masquerading as science.
- Ludicrous hyperbole: “American Marxism is actively working to destroy our society and culture”
- Bad stats: “The NHS costs British households £5000/year. Governments can’t run efficient services.” Sure, the NHS costs UK households 5 grand per year — how much do American households pay for private insurance.
- (Allegedly) unanswerable questions: “We’re supposed to be in awe of teachers’ dedication and outraged at their low pay. Which is it? Are they in it for the money, or because of their mission to help kids?” These “gotcha” questions usually have straightforward answers (for example, people can be dedicated to their jobs and deserving of a living wage).
- Gish gallops: Throwing out so many assertions in a single tirade that you don’t even know where to begin.
- Plausible, but terrible, analogies: “If a million Mexican soldiers tried to invade the USA every year and 150,000 of them made it and claimed territory for Mexico, we’d be outraged. We should be just as alarmed at 150,000 Mexican migrants who settle here.” Mexican migrants aren’t an occupying army annexing territory to a foreign power — they’re low-waged, hard workers who pay tax, don’t get to use the systems that their taxes pay for, and come at their own direction, not at the direction of a foreign power.
- Selective omissions: “Thousands of Canadians go to the USA to get health care they can’t get at home” — not said: millions of Canadians get excellent health care at home, and tens of millions of Americans can’t get healthcare in the USA.
After this anatomy of bad argumentation, Robinson offers general tips for countering these arguments, including “don’t assume they’re stupid,” “focus on arguments, not statistics,” and “stories matter as much as empirical correctness.” These are hard-won, field-tested tactics for both winning over persuadable conservatives and keeping neutral observers from being sucked in by bad arguments.
The next two thirds of the book are taken up with analyses of specific conservative arguments, and responses to them. All told, Robinson takes on 25 of these, from “the woke left want to destroy free speech” to “immigration is harmful” to “there is no such thing as white privilege.”
For each of these arguments, Robinson lays out the best versions of the conservative positions, quoting extensively from both right wing intellectuals and demagogues, and then describes their weaknesses and suggests avenues for arguing these points. He also provides a bibliography at the end of each section.
Robinson also signposts areas where no common ground can be had — true believers in fetal personhood are likely to stay that way, and nothing you say is going to change that. The best you can hope for is to make sure that observers hear the better arguments.
But there are other conservative positions, like “the Nazis were socialists,” that are just plain wrong (Robinson quotes an authoritative source on why Nazis are not socialists — one A. Hitler). These are areas where it’s possible to disabuse people of things they don’t understand well but have fallen into reflexive opinions over.
In his conclusion, Robinson rounds up some conservative positions he agrees with:
- many authoritarian “socialist” governments of the 20th century were horrifying;
- some leftists are unpleasant and self-righteous;
- the Democratic Party is pretty worthless;
- conserving things is good.
Though Robinson notes that even on these areas of seeming agreement, conservatives often fall short of their rhetoric (for example, conservation of our forests, oceans, animals and atmosphere are antithetical to conservative policies).
Robinson also anatomizes the most effective parts of conservative rhetoric and exhorts his leftist comrades to learn from it, and put it to better use.
I confess that I find it hard to spend a lot of time in conservativeland; the podcasts and books and TV are often excruciating. Robinson’s book is proof that it’s worth the effort, though.
If you’d like an essay-formatted version of this post to read or share, here’s a link to it on pluralistic.net, my surveillance-free, ad-free, tracker-free blog:
Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).