A Philosopher's Blog

Nuclear Option

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on March 14, 2010
{{w|Trent Lott}}, Senator from Mississippi.

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Politics is a theater of rhetoric. One common rhetorical tactic is to make use of a dysphemism. Doing this involves using a term or phrase with negative connotations in place of a neutral or positive term or phrase. The purpose of this is to influence how people feel by appealing to their emotions rather than using an actual argument.

One current rhetorical favorite is the phrase “nuclear option.”  This name is applied to the process by which a majority can put an end to a filibuster or comparable delaying maneuver. Trent Lott is credited with providing the name in 2003. Interestingly, Republican Bill Frist was the person who is often credited with making this option famous in 2005.

Interestingly, Frist threatened to use this tactic against the Democrats and this resulted in quite a furor. This was eventually resolved.

Currently the term is being used by the Republicans (and Fox News) to refer to the reconciliation tactic (in which the issues can be settled by a simple majority without the possibility of filibusters). Of course, when the Republicans used reconciliations they did not refer to this as the nuclear option. Naturally, people tend not to refer to their own tactics using dysphemisms.

People use dysphemisms for an obvious reason: they work. For example, opinions on health care can be influenced by the use of this tactic. Interestingly, people who favor an idea when it is put in neutral terms can often be led to reject it merely by recasting the neutral terms in the form of dysphemisms.

While dysphemisms are part of the political toolbox, their use does raise concerns. The main concern is that they (and other rhetorical devices) can be used to influence people into accepting claims they would otherwise reject or to reject claims they would otherwise accept. Such manipulation is, at best, morally questionable.

Of course, it can be argued that if people are swayed by such rhetoric, then the fault is partially their own. After all, learning basic reasoning is rather easy and hence people have no real excuse for being such easy victims of these tactics.

This same logic could be applied to many scams as well. After all, people who fall for scams should generally know better and hence are partially to blame for their deception. But, this does not seem to diminish the wrongness of using such scams against people who do not know better.

Likewise, the use of rhetoric to manipulate people also seems to be wrong.

It can also be argued that the use of such rhetoric is acceptable because it actually helps people reach a decision. After all, one might argue, if people did not have the negative feelings in question, then a dysphemism (or other negative rhetoric could not trigger them. So, for example, if people did not have bad feelings about health care, then the Republican’s dysphemisms would not have any such bad feelings to tap into.

However, dysphemisms generally do not work by revealing a person’s true feelings about the subject. Rather, they do their work in virtue of the negative connotation of the term or phrase used. For example, suppose some people are referred to as terrorists. If someone take a negative view of them because of this, this just reveals that the person doesn’t like terrorists. It does not prove that the people dubbed “terrorists” are terrorists nor does it prove that the person’s negative feelings are justified.

While politicians will clearly not stop using rhetoric, people should work on their critical thinking skills so as to avoid being swayed by such things.

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9 Responses

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  1. […] Nuclear Option « A Philosopher's Blog […]

  2. magus71 said, on March 14, 2010 at 8:51 am

    The health care bill is terrible. That is the most important thing about this, not rhetoric.

    • P.E.N.Name said, on March 14, 2010 at 12:02 pm

      Begging to differ: “The chief executive of the Catholic Health Association, Carol Keehan, wrote on the group’s Web site that although the legislation isn’t perfect, it represents a ‘major first step’ toward covering all Americans and would make ‘great improvements’ for millions of people.”


      We all have our ‘opinions’. . . I don’t think the bill’s being good or bad discounts in any way the Dr’s points about dysphemisms -gotta love that word.

      • T. J. Babson said, on March 14, 2010 at 1:00 pm

        WRT healthcare, the Dems aren’t bothering with dysphemisms but are going right for the Whopper. Here is a great analogy from Greg Mankiw:

        Imagine you have a friend who has a budget problem. Every month he spends more than he earns. His credit card bills are piling up. He is clearly on an unsustainable path. Then one day he comes to you with an idea.

        Friend: I am going to take off a few days from work and fly down to Bermuda for a quick vacation.

        You: But isn’t that expensive? Won’t that just add to your growing debts?

        Friend: Yes, it is expensive. But my plan is deficit-neutral. I have decided to give up that half-caf, extra-shot caramel macchiato I order at Starbucks twice every day. I really don’t need that expensive drink. And if I give it up for the next three years, it will pay for my Bermuda trip.

        You: Well, then, how are you going to solve the problem of your growing debts?

        Friend: I am going to figure that out as soon as I return from Bermuda.

        You: But in light of your budget problem, maybe you should give up Starbucks and skip the Bermuda vacation. Giving up Starbucks could be the easiest way to start balancing your budget.

        Friend: You really aren’t any fun, are you?

        This conversation is meant to illustrate why claims of deficit-neutrality in the healthcare reform bill should not give much comfort to those worried about the U.S. fiscal situation. Even if you believe that the spending cuts and tax increases in the bill make it deficit-neutral, the legislation will still make solving the problem of the fiscal imbalance harder, because it will use up some of the easier ways to close the shortfall. The remaining options will be less attractive, making the eventual fiscal adjustment more painful.


        • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 15, 2010 at 3:06 pm

          When I did debate back in high school, folks would always argue that they could fund their plan via the use of savings mechanisms. Even as a teenager, I knew that was generally BS.

          Paying for Y by saving by cutting X only works if 1) you have the overall income needed to pay for Y, 2) you have the will to cut out X, and 3) the cost of X is equal to or greater than the cost of Y (or the various Xs cut equal that cost).

          This can be done, but rarely is.

          • T. J. Babson said, on March 15, 2010 at 3:15 pm

            We mustn’t be misled by wishful thinking, but must look at the evidence. A must-read by Robert Samuelson:

            One job of presidents is to educate Americans about crucial national problems. On health care, Barack Obama has failed. Almost everything you think you know about health care is probably wrong or, at least, half wrong. Great simplicities and distortions have been peddled in the name of achieving “universal health coverage.” The miseducation has worsened as the debate approaches its climax.


            How often, for example, have you heard the emergency-room argument? The uninsured, it’s said, use emergency rooms for primary care. That’s expensive and ineffective. Once they’re insured, they’ll have regular doctors. Care will improve; costs will decline. Everyone wins. Great argument. Unfortunately, it’s untrue.


            Though it seems compelling, covering the uninsured is not the health care system’s major problem. The big problem is uncontrolled spending, which prices people out of the market and burdens government budgets. Obama claims his proposal checks spending. Just the opposite. When people get insurance, they use more health services. Spending rises. By the government’s latest forecast, health spending goes from 17 percent of the economy in 2009 to 19 percent in 2019. Health “reform” would likely increase that.

      • magus71 said, on March 14, 2010 at 2:43 pm

        Oh, actually I agree. Dr. L was quite an expert on dysphemisms when it came to the subject of waterboarding.

        So now not only are dysphemisms a distraction on the health care bill issue, but discussions on the dysphemisms themselves are also a distraction.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 15, 2010 at 3:09 pm

          Ah, that is a good point about dysphemisms: one man’s dysphemism is another man’s “truth.” There can be rather substantial debates about such matters. For example, I regard water boarding as torture. However, to folks who are pro-water boarding, my use of the term would be seen as a dysphemism. Whether it is torture or not, however, is a matter that can be debated.

          While disputes over language can go on and on, the main way to solve them is to work towards using a neutral term or description that the parties in the debate can agree on. This can be a challenge since folks are often loath to yield the advantage of rhetoric.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 15, 2010 at 3:02 pm

      But how is it terrible? Or, to be more specific, how is it worse than what we have now?

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