Friday, June 11, 2004

lies, damned lies, and semantics

Over at Casa de Alt, a challenge has been thrown down regarding my characterization of Ralph Nader as "not delusional" and as "lying" when he says "I think I'm going to take more votes away from Republicans than from Democrats." The issue raised is that (as phrased by an Althouse reader) "it's such a ridiculous thing to say that even a liar would only say it if he was out of touch with reality" or (as phrased by the Althouse proprietress) "Deliberate liars who are in touch with reality will say believable things. Otherwise, why bother to lie?"

As I see it, we are dealing with two different levels of out-of-touch-with-reality (hereafter OOTWR) here. Imagine me saying "I think capitalism will soon collapse under the weight of its own contradictions." You could think I was OOTWR if you thought I really believed this when I said it. You could think I was OOTWR if I expected you to believe this when I said it, regardless of whether or not I personally actually believe it or not. In the first case, the specific reality I'm OOTW is that of the world and capitalism; in the second, the reality I'm OOTW is that of your beliefs and what I can get you to believe. The Althousian argument is that Nader might not be first-order OOTWR for saying that "he's going to say take more votes away from Republicans than from Democrats," but he's still second-order OOTWR.

If this is the argument, I don't think I'm going to cry "Arkanow" and concede. First of all, even though I think Nader's claim is wrong and disingenuously so--meaning that I'm fairly positive Nader knows it's wrong--but I don't think it's completely you'd-have-to-be-a-moron to believe him. He does have numbers--granted, numbers that I think are misleading--to back up his claim, namely 2000 poll data suggesting that he took more votes from Bush than for Gore in New Hampshire (the state Bush won by the closest margin after Florida) and that nationwide the ratio of Nader votes stolen from Gore vs. Bush was only 8-to-5. If you believe those numbers, and you bought into the idea there are Republicans deeply disillusioned by the Bush presidency but unwilling to vote for Kerry, you could view the scenario as plausible.

I don't think it's plausible--indeed, I think it's highly implausible. And yet, if I were going to rate plausibility, I would rate it as still more plausiblethan the earlier-bandied-fantasy that Howard Dean was going to be elected president on the strength of a massive increase in voter turnout, and there seemed to be people who bought into that. Nader at least has some numbers to provide; the claim about Dean had no numbers or precedent in electoral history whatsoever. In other words, I think even though Nader doesn't believe he will take more votes from Republicans than Democrats, he might well expect that there are a few people out there who will be persuaded by his argument, and a few people are all that a campaign that is looking for support from one in forty voters needs.

Alteratively, Nader could say he is going to take more votes from Republicans and not really expect you to believe him, but he could think that you would think that he believed it, leading to the conclusion that Nader was conducting his campaign with the belief that he was not actually damaging the chances of Kerry defeating Bush. Given that there do indeed appear to be people who believe this--those who think Nader is first-order OOTWR--I don't think we can say Nader is second-order OOTWR for thinking that people would take him as being sincere.

Indeed, this is what prompted my earlier post. I am amazed at the extent to which people are still willing to accept the idea that Nader is being sincere when he says he wants to see Bush out of office, and that he somehow just doesn't grasp how much damage his own campaign could do to the prospects of that happening. I think the available evidence is much more consistent with the idea that Nader knows full well he was a spoiler in 2000 and is not going to do anything to avoid being a spoiler in 2004. Given some of the various ideals that Nader's has previously focused his monomaniacal-narcissistic-uncompromising character on, this might seem like a crazy course of action, but it isn't OOTWR.

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