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If Pennsylvania Voters Jumped off a Bridge, Would You? Pat Toomey and Joe Sestak Would

October 25, 2010

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We’ve got this saying about how what’s right isn’t always popular, and what’s popular isn’t always right. It’s a pretty popular statement in its own right; it’s on bumper stickers and all.  It’s also a pretty cliché statement, for sure, but from the way that Pennsylvania senate candidates Pat Toomey and Rep. Joe Sestak described one another in their first debate last week, you’d think that there’s nothing better than sharing your political ideals with as large a portion of the population as possible. Or rather, that there’s nothing worse than having radical ideas. Because while neither of them expressly says that their views are commonplace, their criticisms of each other imply that anything other than Zen-like adherence to the political Middle Way is utterly unacceptable. When talking about their opponent, each of these guys uses the word “extreme” more frequently than a bag of Doritos.

Toomey does his best to portray Sestak as an amalgamation of stereotypical complaints about liberals:

Joe Sestak and– and the other very liberal Democrats who have dominated the agenda in Washington have attempted to dramatically expand the size and the scope and the power and the cost of our government.

Well, again, the extreme view is the view held by the tiny minority in Congress, in Pennsylvania, and American society that believes there should be no restrictions whatsoever.  Taxpayers should fund abortions as Joe Sestak advocates.  Partial birth abortions should be permitted, as he advocates.  He’s taken the most liberal positions on many things.  He doesn’t respect the rights of– law abiding citizens to own firearms in– in many ways.

Here Toomey portrays Sestak as in line with a number of controversial liberal positions, but doesn’t really explain why they’re bad other than that they’re “extreme” or “out of touch with Pennsylvania.” And we see Sestak doing the same thing right back. He portrays Toomey as an extremist by drawing comparisons between Toomey and the Tea Party, as well as associated conservative candidates:

What I’m most concerned about are those extreme candidates that are actually taking of the extreme fringe of the Tea Party.  There are those that are running with Congressman Toomey.  Miss O’Donnell next door, for example.  That want to do away with the 14th Amendment.  That actually thinks there can be a state established religion.

I think there’s even more of an extreme taken by Congressman Toomey on such social issues and others…I think those views with O’Donnell and others are too extreme for…Pennsylvania.

Again, no actual criticism of any of the positions held by the Tea Party, Toomey, or O’Donnell other than that they’re from the “extreme fringe” of the right. So while Sestak makes his accusations of extremism through reference to other conservatives and Toomey makes his through reference to Sestak’s allegedly radical stances on issues, they’re both doing the same thing. They’re implying that non-mainstream ideas are automatically bad ideas. Both bolster this idea by dodging their opponent’s accusations of extremism with appeals to their own pragmatic centrism. Sestak makes reference to his time in the military, where “we don’t breed liberals.  We don’t breed conservatives…What is there is problem solvers.” Toomey waffles when asked about the Facebook props Sarah Palin gave him and stresses his un-Republican support for the nomination of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who he deemed “to be quite capable and competent.”

Clearly, both candidates think that the best way to win this election is to make their opponent appear as radical as possible. Both candidates present having different ideas as a flaw important enough to make a politician unelectable; the quality of those ideas goes completely unevaluated. Conversely, it also implies that having popular ideas is enough to make a candidate electable, whether or not those ideas are actually any good. In this debate, being “out of step” with other Pennsylvanians is not a quality necessary for innovation and unique leadership, it’s a quality that can mean nothing but radical, unfettered extremism. But this problematic not only because it’s reductive, but because it seems so unnecessary to point out that radical ideas aren’t necessarily bad ones, and popular ideas certainly aren’t always good.

If you want to know more:

  • Both candidates are using what rhetoricians would call argumentum ad populum (or simply “appeal to the masses,” in the parlance of our times). While this type of argument is often written off as a logical fallacy, clearly it can be very effective.
  • You can find a transcript of the debate here.
  • Toomey and Sestak debated again last Friday right here in Pittsburgh, but as of press time a transcript was not yet available. You can find preliminary commentary here and here.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara Johnstone permalink
    October 26, 2010 5:56 pm

    Unfortunately we have to vote for one of these guys. I miss Arlen Specter.

  2. Matt Zebrowski permalink*
    October 26, 2010 10:22 pm

    I kind of suspected we’d see something like this happening when Specter changed parties. But still, I was pretty surprised with how the primary turned out since it seemed that just about everyone in the world was endorsing Specter.

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