Cause/effect chains: arguing from immediate to remote causes or
immediate to remote effects.
Most arguments about causes begin with a question that starts with the word, “Why?”
Some of the most interesting questions start this way. But if we make a serious attempt
to answer them, one question will lead to others. Here’s an example:
Over the past 2-3 decades, America has grown increasingly dissatisfied with its
presidential candidates. During the same time period, some of the leaders Americans
loved best have declined to run for the office even when drafted (Mario Cuomo, Colin
Powell). Others have dropped out of the race or failed to launch a campaign when it
became clear that less respected candidates would beat them (John McCain in 2000, Al
Gore in 2004 & 2008). America seems unable to elect a president that most Americans
agree is a strong, able leader. Why?
To answer this question, we begin with the most immediate cause we can think of. Then
we ask what the cause of that cause is, and what the cause of that cause is, and what the
cause of that cause is. (Note: In a case where there’s more than one immediate or
intermediate reason, we may have to trace more than one chain at some point.)
Possible reasons why so many admired men don’t run for president:
They can’t raise enough money to get elected in the general election.
They don’t want to give up their privacy.
They don’t know what to do with the country (or, as one student put it,
“America’s a mess”). Alternatively, they may know what to do, but think they
can’t get a consensus from Congress, the courts, and/or the public.
They fear for their safety.
They fear the consequences of screwing up if they screw up.
Let’s investigate these explanations one by one.
Why can’t popular, respected men raise enough money to get elected president?
Because you need a lot of money to get elected president in the U.S. today, and money
from individual citizen contributions never equals the amount of money that can be
raised by a candidate who has corporate and/or special interest backing. (Note: This
familiar truism was disproved by the Obama candidacy in 2008. He has lots more money
than his opponent, and most of his funds are from small private contributions.)
Let’s chart these answers and the questions they in turn suggest (see next page).
Why does the money matter? Why is the presidency for sale?
Because the public responds to political advertising, especially short ads on prime time
television, and these are very expensive.
Why do special interests give so much? Why do private citizens give so little?
Because they stand to gain huge amounts Private citizens don’t frequently
of money from policies that benefit their contribute small amounts to campaigns
interests, and they assume that the more for the same reason many people don’t
they help finance a candidate’s campaign, vote at all. They assume that one
the more favors he will owe them. contribution, like one vote, makes no
What does this line of reasoning suggest? We’ll come back to that question.
For now, let’s move on to the other bullets.
Why do candidates fear giving up their privacy?
Because recent election campaigns have gotten so personal and dirty. To run for
president in America today is to have a hostile army of enemies researching your past,
interviewing everyone who ever knew you (as if no one has ever disliked you), and even
going through your garbage can, not to mention your phone calls and emails, looking for
dirt. The minute they find anything, it will be on TV and all over the Internet that night.
Why have campaigns gotten so personal and dirty?
The media believe this is what the public wants to know about.
Why do the media believe this is what the public wants to know about?
Newspaper, magazine and TV subscription rates as well as media surveys suggest this.
For example, more people read gossip magazines like People than serious news
magazines like The Nation, or the Atlantic Monthly. Respected newspapers have gone
out of circulation by the hundreds in this country in the past two decades. More people
watch TV than read anything.
What does this line of reasoning suggest? We’ll come back to that question
in a minute. For now, let’s move on to the other bullets.
Why don’t our leaders know what to do with the country anymore? Even if they know
what to do, why can’t they get others to go along? In other words, as one student put it,
why is America “such a mess”?
We can’t get a majority consensus about what to do to solve our nation’s problems—even
basic problems that you’d think we’d be able to solve, like what to do about cleaning up
New Orleans, how to act to control an avian flu epidemic, or what to do to prepare for a
possible terrorist attack.
Why can’t we get the political consensus necessary to solve our problems?
Maybe we see consensus as a bad thing, believing that opposition leaders who agree with
one another are betraying their party’s principles.
Why would we see compromise and consensus as bad and unprincipled?
Because most political campaigns today demonize the opposition, suggesting that we
should dislike and fear those who don’t think as we do.
Why do most political campaigns demonize the opposition?
Because of the nature of the public forum most people pay attention to. Television is an
entertainment forum, not an information forum. Information on TV has to be presented
to us in an entertaining format. To do this, political commentators and talk show hosts
highlight conflict in order to make their stories more dramatic. Also, most political
advertising on TV is in the form of very brief ads. (Ads must be brief, you recall, because
they’re so expensive.) In a brief ad, you can’t give complex policy statements, so you
have to figure out how to get people to like you and dislike the opposition enough that
they won’t feel the need to ask complex questions.
What does this line of reasoning suggest? We’ll come back to that in a
minute. For now, let’s move on to the other bullets.
Why do candidates fear for their safety?
Because presidents do get shot, and because at least one of the two current candidates,
Barack Obama, has already received death threats and been stalked by a gun-toting
idiot. Moreover, at some of John McCain’s recent rallies, death threats against Obama
have been shouted from the crowd. If he hears his supporters threatening to kill his
opponent, it must have occurred to John McCain that he could get shot, too. So it’s
hardly surprising that anyone who doesn’t want the presidency as much as these guys do
wouldn’t run. Would you have run if you were, say, Colin Powell, and you knew how
much danger the first African-American president could face? In a way, it’s amazing
that Obama wants the job.
Why do people shout death threats at political rallies?
Because they’re egged on by talk show hosts and political pundits whose shows only
represent one point of view. As we said, these shows often demonize their opponents.
Someone with an unbalanced mind might easily believe he’s a patriotic hero if he kills a
candidate who has been described to him as a bigger threat to this country than Osama
Why do so many political commentators sensationalize political campaigns rather then
presenting a balanced view including both sides?
Because their ratings go up if they do this. In other words, this is apparently the kind of
stuff most Americans want to hear. The alternative, detailed policy analysis, bores us.
Why do many Americans prefer radical commentary that demonizes the opposition?
Because it’s simple and easy to understand. It’s a lot easier to pin the blame for our
problems on one bad person, or a group of bad people, than it is to read lots of books
and magazines and newspapers and try to understand what’s really going on. After all,
how well do you understand our current economic crisis?
What does this line of reasoning suggest? We’ll come back to that line of
questioning. For now, let’s move on to the last bullet.
Why do they fear the consequences of screwing up if they screw up?
To help us consider this question, we have before us in 2008 a man who’s arguably the
least popular outgoing president of the 20th century. He’s the only president to have a
mocking movie of his presidency made before he left office. (Oliver Stone’s “W.”, which
will be released October 17th). So the question we’re really asking is, “Would you like to
be George W. Bush right now? If not, why not?”
As we developed our list of questions, we should have noticed that several lines of
reasoning overlap. In other words, several of these problems have the same cause or
causes. Those causes are:
Biased media outlets that sensationalize problems rather than promoting a
reasoned discussion of solutions.
A tendency, in both the media and the public, to see political debate not as a
source of answers to our problems, but only as a source of entertainment.
Apathetic, illiterate, or overworked and exhausted voters who can’t or won’t read
complex policy statements.
Angry voters who’d rather blame our leaders for problems that are caused, at least
in part, by all of us.
In short, we’re a people who’ve given up trying to understand how our government
works. The consequences are dangerous. Here I leave you with a final note on the
potential effects of this problem.
On Tuesday, October 14th, 2008, my husband and I sat in the kitchen listening to John
McCain’s new economic proposals for easing us out of our current financial crisis.
McCain proposed several new tax cuts on small business, large corporations, and
individual families. Then he proposed several new multi-billion dollar government
programs to support individual banks, buy so-called “toxic assets,” and help homeowners
pay their mortgages. Knowing that McCain has no plans to decrease military
expenditures or disengage from current wars, and knowing that we already have a trillion
dollar deficit, I turned to my husband and asked, “Where will this money come from?”
My husband grinned and shrugged. “We’ll print it,” he said.
He’s right. This is what our next president will have to do, if he’s determined to promise
us everything we want in order to get elected. If we’re going to give away lots more
money without collecting anything more in taxes, then manufacturing imaginary money
by just telling the mints to print more is the only way we can possibly do this. But as
solutions go, this one should send a cold shiver down your spine, because it’s the only
sure road to a Great Depression. Here’s your last informed voter question: Why?