First, let me add another reason why you want to do message board activism. Remember the story of the fellas who drove past a guy on a park bench in New York. "How do we get to Carnegie Hall?" they asked. The old guy just shook his head, "practice, practice, practice." Debate is an art. Indeed, it is the art at the very heart of activism. Message board debate is lively, and the feedback you get is quick. Everything else you do — LTE’s, speaking in public, talking to your inlaws — will improve, as your debate skills improve.
So let’s get down to the "nuts and bolts" of winning tactics in political debate..
1. Know what "winning" means. It means persuading the uncommitted. The GOoPer you’re engaging is not going to log off, and rush out to change his party affiliation. You can’t convert the other side. But you can reach the uncommitted — read that "moderate" or maybe, "wishy-washy" spectator, who is watching the show. He — and not your opponent — is your audience. The obvious analogy is cross-examining a witness — especially one foolish enough to argue with you. He doesn’t understand that he is a prop in your play. You’re asking him questions, but you’re not really talking to him. You’re talking to the jury in the box — getting answers out of him for their consumption. It is the same in political debate. You’re talking to the audience, and the give and take with the other side is more like dialogue in the theater. It communicates the story to the audience.
"Winning" means putting your opponent on the wrong side of public opinion. This is the only realistic goal you can achieve. You won’t ever hear, "you’re so right, I surrender," but you can handily push your opponent into a position at odds with the "mainstream." You should recognize this as a tried and true conservative tactic. It is why they aggressively push the "gay marriage" issue, and all of their assorted boogiemen. You can do the same thing — and much more effectively. Why? Because mainstream opinion is WITH YOU on issues like deficits, tax cuts for the rich, the mess in Iraq, exporting jobs to the third world, improving wages and living standards, and affordable healthcare. Obviously, those are the subjects you want to talk about.
2. Moderate or marginalize your opponent. This strategy — "moderate or marginalize" — was given its name by one of my associates at my old message board, and it is the heart of message board debate tactics. Your goal is to force your opponent into an untenable position with respect to public opinion. This is a process that takes time, requires some steps, and therefore requires patience. You are trying to get him to admit something the mainstream public doesn’t like. You mostly do this by forcing him into a dilemma — where he must either concede to a progressive position, or dig in to an absurd conservative position.
You have to know where you’re going, and know when you’ve gotten there. He’s not going to concede defeat — ever — but you can push him into a dilemma. You have to know when he’s in that dilemma — which means that you have to see the contradiction in advance.
Example time. In my counter domination thread, I used the example of Ann Coulter claiming that Democrats will create a "job free zone." My response was unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that no Republican has ever left office with unemployment under 5%, while every Democratic administration but one has managed this. Looks like a slam dunk, right? Here is what a responder on the Kos thread said:
There’s just one problem with the "who left office with the highest unemployment" argument: conservatives are obsessed with the fairy-tale of the "free market", i.e. government has nothing to do with economics or job loss. Of course, this is ignorant lunacy and easily explained, but since most conservatives have the conceptual skills of a six year-old, it doesn’t seem to take.
First of all, if you are the type who says things like, "yeah, but they’ll just say . . ." you need to pay attention. Of course "they’ll just say . . ." That is the beginning of the process of moving them. Since you know what they’ll "just say," you can game plan what you’ll "just say" — and more to the point, you can start to see the opportunities to put them into that dilemma you want them in. Note that I couldn’t care less whether the lesson "takes" with the conservative. Neither do I care about his lack of "conceptual skills.’ He is not who I am talking to. I am talking to the moderate "yellow stripe" watching this exchange. The conservative is just a tackling dummy. His lack of conceptual skills actually helps.
In this particular case, the statement, "government has nothing to do with economics or job loss" is EXACTLY where I want the conservative to move. The person quoted above told you why. "This is ignorant lunacy, and easily explained." Exactly. As in, a moderate voter can understand it, and will conclude that the conservative wing-nut is an idiot when he can’t — because remember, the moderate voter is who I’m trying to persuade.
But first let’s twist the knife a little in a small contradiction. You see, the unemployment numbers were a response to how good the Republicans are, and how poor the Democrats are at "economics and job loss." When they break out this "break market" response, they have changed up on you. Now, Republicans aren’t so good, because, well, "government has nothing to do with economics and job loss." Here is your question. "So you admit that Democrats don’t create a ‘job free zone,’ and in fact do better than Republicans?" And he says what? Maybe he repeats the "government has no business . . ." crock. No problem.
Next I ask — it’s a step by step process — "is that because government CAN’T promote job creation, or because government SHOULDN’T promote job creation."
And the trap is set. If he says government "can’t," you say, "well, the Republicans certainly can’t. The Democrats have — consistently, every time they’ve held the White House." Slam dunk. "Job free zone" is now bullshit, and everybody watching knows it.
But wait, there is a deeper contradiction here. There is where understanding your opponent’s ideology comes in. They don’t say that government CAN promote job creation, but it shouldn’t. They say it shouldn’t BECAUSE it can’t. The argument for "less government" is that government is inherently inefficient, and that the "hidden hand" is much better at managing the private economy. Government will just make things worse, according to this ideology. Republicans consistently apply this principle, and get consistently disappointing results. Since the Democrats consistently post better job creation numbers — and while we’re at it, better GDP growth numbers — maybe, just maybe, the whole "hidden hand" ideology is SIMPLY FALSE. Maybe government does have a positive role to play in promoting prosperity, after all.
He can’t admit that — that would be the ballgame. His only move — think of this as "rhetorical chess" — is to shift from "government shouldn’t because it can’t," to "government can but it shouldn’t." Once again, it’s a slam dunk. He just took the marginalized position. Why would anybody take such a position? The government actually CAN do something about people languishing without jobs — like say the 23% who were out of work in 1933 — but that’s just tough shit, we still shouldn’t. Is that his position? WHY?? The answer is because Republicans are "cheap labor conservatives." They don’t WANT low unemployment. Desperate people on the unemployment line work cheaper. Low unemployment means "labor shortage," which translates into rising wages — and here’s where it gets good — DRIVEN UP BY THE VERY FORCES OF SUPPLY AND DEMAND THIS ASSHOLE SAYS HE WORSHIPS.
Let’s put the icing on the cake, shall we. Because we still have this not-yet-directly-answered question, "why is job creation the government’s business?" Here is your answer. "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union . . ." includes doing things like ". . . promote the general welfare . . . ." If job creation, and rising wages and living standards isn’t part of "promoting the general welfare" I don’t know what is. Of course the government should concern with job creation and low unemployment, if it can — and it demonstrably can. In fact, it has . . . under Democrats. Check and mate.
3. Pick your battles wisely. You don’t have to respond to every red herring crock of shit the other side comes up with. When you wade into an argument about gay marriage, or affirmative action, or whether English ought to be the "official language" of the US, you are arguing on his turf, where he holds the rhetorical center of the board. Yes, those moderate "yellow stripes" are with you on issues like full employment, reducing deficits, and universal health care. They’re with him on "protecting our heritage" and other such code phrases for bigotry. Listen up. Some of those yellow stripes are bigots. Get over it. If they were with us on EVERYTHING, we’d have won already. Should we pander to their bigotry? Of course not. We also don’t have to launch a frontal assault, right into the teeth of that bigotry. Frontal assaults into well fortified positions — where tactical retreat was considered "dishonorable" — are how the Japanese fought World War II. They lost.
I hope you’ve figured out by now, that Republican strategists are well versed in the very tactics I’m talking about. That’s why they run on "gay marriage," "immy-grants," and "the war on terror." Did you notice that the World Trade Center wreckage hadn’t stopped smoking yet, before they were using "terror" to marginalize Democrats? Why those issues? They appeal to moderate "yellow stripes." So do issues like universal health care, restoring our manufacturing base, and closing those deficits. The GOoPers can’t talk about that stuff, so they don’t. They talk about their "wedge" issues and other distractions. When you feel compelled to respond to that bullshit — instead of talking about YOUR strong issues — you are just playing into their hands. Don’t take the bait.
4. When necessary, reframe their strong issues in terms favorable to you. Sometimes you have no choice, but argue with them on their turf. There’s a right way to do it, and a wrong way to do it — starting with understanding what you are trying to do. You play offense on your turf — scoring points, and winning people over. On their turf, your goal is much more modest. You are simply trying to blunt the power of their appeal — to take some of the steam out of it. Here are some ways to do that.
First, find the "ugly truth" they’re hiding. "Securing our borders," and "English only" are appeals to bigotry. You know that, I know that, and they know that. Here is their achilles heel. They can’t admit that — and they don’t. Let’s look at gay marriage, for a current example. According to the GOoPers, their anti-gay marriage amendment isn’t "gay bashing," it’s "defending the institution of marriage." Kind of like "defending" Mom and apple pie. Now you can blunder in and say something like, "you’re just gay bashing, you bigotted piece of shit." That may be true, but this direct attack is a waste of time. They deny it’s true. They say they’re "defending marriage" — can’t you read? Meanwhile, you come off looking unhinged. Jesse Helms was a master of the "what, me racist?" game. He did it specifically to get your goat . . . and liberals never disappointed him. You’ve got to be smarter than he is.
Here’s how I pull the teeth on the "marriage amendment."
First of all, I’m all for "promoting and supporting marriage." Notice, I changed the words. I don’t say "defend" — which tacitly concedes that marriage is being "attacked" and needs "defending." That’s why I support full employment — since economic distress is a leading cause of divorce. It’s also why I oppose outsourcing good paying jobs to third world sweat shops. While we’re at it, I support subsidized child care, and affordable health insurance to insure that young married couples can get good prenatal care. You GOoPers support that stuff — to strengthen marriage, doncha know. Don’t you? Notice how I just shifted the frame of discussion away from the homo’s, and into those economic issues where we have the upper hand. "Interception! First down, Democrats."
But wait, let’s a drive a stake into the heart of the "anti-gay" part of "defending marriage." Where is the one state that recognizes "gay marriage?" That’s one state, mind you. Why it’s Massachussetts. Which state has the lowest divorce rate in the nation? Why it’s Massachussetts. Hmmm. No much undermining of marriage going on in the one place that recognizes gay marriage. Could it be that gay marriage DOESN’T undermine the "institution of marriage" — as a matter of objective science. They say it will. Do they have some actual empirical evidence to prove this claim? Or is this just empty symbolism — while they ignore things like full employment, stagnating wages, child care, and affordable health insurance? You know, things that might actually help a married couple.
As for an "anti-gay marriage amendment," do we really want to amend the constitution to insert some empty symbolism — there’s your quick and dirty label for it — when we don’t have any evidence that such an amendment will do any good? I say the constitution is too important to debase with empty symbolic gestures that will have no real effect on the problem we’re concerned about. I say we have a host of practical and effective policies that will strengthen marriage — without having to tinker with our sacred constitution. Strengthening marriage is the what we’re talking about isn’t it? You GOoPers aren’t just gay bashing for some cheap bigot votes are you? Nahhh, you guys wouldn’t do that.
Notice I do get around to leveling the "bigot" charge against them. But I don’t say it, I ask it, and then, only after I’ve prepared the ground by reframing the discussion. Notice I adopt their bullshit rationale — strengthening marriage, doncha know — and shove it up their ass. Now, when I ask — don’t accuse, ask — I actually want him to deny it. Because he looks aburd when he does. I never have to actually attack him on this point, but the audience get’s it. Trust me. Oh, and now it isn’t you going ape shit. Now he’s the one fetching around denying his bigotry, in a situation where the louder he howls the worse it gets for him. Always make sure you’re on the right side of that dynamic.
To recap these debate tactics.
1. Winning means winning the uncommitted center.
2. Moderate or marginalize your opponent.
3. Choose your battles wisely, so as to argue on your turf and not his.
4. When forced to argue on his turf, reframe the debate in terms favorable to you — always looking out for a chance to force a "turnover."
That’ll get you started. And remember, whatever benefits it has in the larger struggle, message board activism is damn good practice for virtually every other form of activism you engage in.
Next is a piece called "rhetorical chess" on the subject of how to mount an effective attack.