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Of False Analogies, Fabled Claims and Caution Flags



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Likely GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush’s inability to articulate for reporters what he thinks about the Iraq War that the United States initiated in 2003 at the behest of his brother, George W. Bush, when the latter was President has unleashed a torrent of criticism of the younger Bush, his older sibling and that conflict. Pundits of all stripes have been weighing in on these topics. New York Times columnist and New York University professor Paul Krugman, for example, has suggested that the rationale for the war in Iraq, such as it was, was built on deliberate lies.[1] But Krugman was not so certain about why President Bush pressed for war on the basis of now roundly criticized claims, assumptions and intelligence. Likewise, the always outspoken Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi has argued that many journalists and editors knew even at the time (2003) the Bush White House was pressing the case for war that its justifications did not make sense and could not succeed as envisioned.[2] But Taibbi, too, found it difficult to explain why the Bush administration had proceeded anyway, and why skeptics did not prevent the president’s decision to launch the conflict. For his part, David Brooks of the New York Times has sought to set aside the question of whether President Bush misled the nation and to argue instead that Americans can and should learn from our collective past mistakes and, more particularly, that one lesson of the Iraq war failure should be that citizens should be wary of leaders seeking broad-scale change.[3] Finally, Roger Cohen, also writing in the Times, has argued that Americans need to recall and seek to learn from the past, but do so in a way that does not obsess about history and instead simultaneously looks ahead to the future.[4] I have found these arguments fascinating as they are characterized by a certain dualism. Commentators first appear to make a judgment concerning whether the Bush White House decision to press for war was a deliberate effort to mislead the nation, and second and thereafter, to seek to describe or explain the character of the chosen course. Just like President Bush and his advisors, all of these writers have used analogical reasoning to justify their attempts to make sense of the tragic choices those earlier principals elected. Paradoxically perhaps, one would normally applaud such logic, as it represents perhaps the most sophisticated form of cognition. But, in this case, this type of reasoning was wrongly or misleadingly applied and interpreted, and large numbers of Americans were persuaded to support a disastrous policy course for their nation and for Iraq and its region. This fact points to a deeper issue in United States politics, the common use of false analogies to justify policy decisions, and the challenge that presents to democratic deliberation. A few illustrations may illuminate the ubiquity of this concern.

Consider, for example, the number of candidates who run for executive and other public offices each year in the U.S. claiming that their experience in a for-profit firm “meeting payroll” equips them for political responsibility. This sort of rhetoric implies that government can and should be operated as a private business. But this analogy is patently false, as government is not a business and much of what it does will never earn a profit, nor is it intended to do so. Indeed, the very purpose of the vast majority of public entities is to deliver services or goods otherwise not available in the marketplace. Moreover, the lion’s share of public organizations depends on legislative appropriations and not fees or the sale of services. Nonetheless, prospective and current office-holders employ this business-experience argument frequently in efforts to convince voters of their fitness for office. They do so because so many citizens are already persuaded that the analogy is “true.” In fact, whenever used, this argument instead should encourage voters to conclude such individuals are unfit to serve. Nevertheless, such claims typically go unchallenged.

Another common example of the “phenomenon of the false analogy” may be seen in political leaders’ arguments that the federal budget can be seen as directly analogous to household spending and therefore costs may never exceed revenues. This contention has a very long history and millions of voters take it as fact. Nevertheless, the analogy underpinning this claim, too, is false. Economists for generations have taught that the national government need not always balance its budget, and indeed should not do so when necessary, if it is to react reasonably to help to address normal economic cycles. In short, such arguments are simply not true. More deeply, to the extent that the policies arising from these injunctions are followed zealously, they can and have imposed needless hardships on the populations that have supported them. It is also clear such claims are used to secure outcomes that otherwise might be deeply unpopular. It this sense, they represent a form of untransparent politics that is innately inimical to democracy.

Still another exemplar of this form of poor reasoning by analogy occurs when would-be leaders or officials suggest that “all” of some category or phenomena are alike and should be treated accordingly in policy and programmatic choices, e.g., all immigrants are “bad” and either in the United States to take Americans’ jobs or engaged in some other sort of nefariousness. Similarly, some elected leaders and officials often contend that all who are poor “are dependent” and “lazy” or worse. These sorts of arguments are deeply pernicious and empirically false, but nonetheless widely and successfully employed to mobilize many voters who accept them at face value.

These widespread “truisms” not only rally individuals around non-existent or inappropriate concerns, but they also result in hurtful or worse policy and program choices. In effect, in these cases, individuals are exhorted to support decisions that impose costs on themselves or on other specific groups in the name of incorrect certainties and inapt logic. All of this creates a mediated echo chamber in which citizens are persuaded to support courses of action that bear little or no factual relationship to reality and which are justified on the basis of errant analogies.

Given their omnipresence, these false arguments represent a difficult challenge to achieving anything approaching democratic deliberation in our country. In these scenarios, many voters are already convinced of falsehoods built on faulty analogies, setting up a temptation for guileful or cynical actors to use citizen ignorance to further their own quests for personal or partisan power. While one might wish that electoral leaders would discipline their behavior and not use these situations to their personal benefit, there is little evidence, now or in the past, that these leaders are willing consistently to do so. Instead, many seek to exploit voter misunderstanding to further their ideological or policy preferences. Indeed, their willingness to do so is often thereafter debated as a question of malevolent intentionality or misguided adherence to ideologies or false shibboleths, as in the case of the George W. Bush administration and the Iraq war.

But the vexing issue of how to address this concern remains, especially if we cannot rely on candidates and officials to inform voters. Widespread embrace of untrue analogies represents a situation in which millions are convinced of erroneous arguments and claims. One might, finally, take recourse in education. But only 39 percent of Americans between 25 and 64 possess a two-year or baccalaureate degree and not all of these will take courses in economics or politics or sociology in which they might read about these concerns and understand them, and question and debunk inappropriate analogies. Or, perhaps teachers in secondary school could tackle this challenge and teach these subjects more thoroughly, but the current emphasis on reading and STEM subjects for standardized tests makes this unlikely. Likewise, in theory, parents could help, but too many are already convinced themselves of these supposed certitudes. That leaves the press, which certainly could do a better job of challenging this deceptive rhetoric when it is employed in the public discourse. But some media outlets exist to promote specific political perspectives and are unlikely to play such a watchdog role when such arguments support their owner’s agendas, while others may be cowed into silence by political leaders bent on a specific course, as Taibbi has argued happened to many writers and editors in the period prior to the Iraq conflict. In addition, although Taibbi did not so contend, it may be that many newspapers and news outlets no longer possess the resources to engage in explanatory and investigative journalism, since the great share are now pressed to provide profits for parent corporations with other interests foremost.

This analysis suggests the texture and singular complexity implicit in addressing the challenge of democratic deliberation. Good governance, as the elective choice to launch the failed Iraq war sadly illustrated, depends on honest and deliberative leaders, a watchful press and an informed and judicious citizenry. When these factors are not present or cannot be secured with some measure of consistency, policy injustices and courses can and will occur that are not merely the product of simple miscalculation or a lack of knowledge, but of intention and power gone awry. These represent caution flags for a self-governing people. We may owe Jeb Bush a collective thank you for his doubtless politically difficult and unintended reminder of this reality. The surge of reflection his remarks has unleashed is refreshing to see. It is also necessary to a vital public conversation of the always relevant matter of how to secure a democratically deliberative politics.


[1] Paul Krugman, New York Times, May 18, 2015. “Errors and Lies.” Accessed, May 18, 2015.

[2] Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone, May 19, 2015, “Forget what we know now: We knew then the Iraq War was a Joke.” Accessed May 21, 2015.

[3] David Brooks, New York Times, May 19, 2015, “Learning from Mistakes.” Accessed May 19, 2015.

[4] Roger Cohen, New York Times, May 18, 2015, “The Presence of the Past.” Accessed May 18, 2015.

Publication Date

May 26, 2015