American public discourse has worked itself into knots again. Amid the recent government shutdown and deliberation over President Trump’s wall, we seem to have gotten ourselves wrapped up in another intractable conversation — whose fault is the shutdown? Our political discourse hasn’t been exceptionally helpful as we try to untangle these threads.
We may also be left feeling confused since we have mostly gotten stuck playing the blame game. For instance, consider these two tweets that occurred on the same day from leaders in both political parties.
Democrats continue to refuse to negotiate in good faith or appropriate any money for border barriers. If they won’t compromise, POTUS should use asset forfeiture money or other discretionary fees to start construction. If not, he should declare a national emergency. It's time.
This blame game is happening despite a December 2018 Oval Office interchange with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer where the president explicitly took ownership for the shutdown. Yet here we are. The president and Senate Republicans are blaming Democrats for their unwillingness to negotiate on the wall. House Democrats continue to make a concerted effort to frame it as the #TrumpShutdown. Both sides have accused the other of holding federal workers hostage as they negotiate (or don’t) over the wall. So whose fault is it?
The inevitable outcome of the blame game is “both side-ism.” This type of rhetoric gained national attention after the 2017 riots in Charlottesville, VA. The president placed the blame for the ensuing chaos “on many sides” — a statement that was taken to convey sympathy for self-professed Nazis and white nationalists.
Both-sides rhetoric shows up in a variety of places. Take the AP’s recent “Two to tango” tweet:
AP FACT CHECK: Democrats put the blame for the shutdown on Trump. But it takes two to tango. Trump's demand for $5.7 billion for his border wall is one reason for the budget impasse. The Democrats refusal to approve the money is another. https://t.co/9IWnqUgl2d
This particular tweet faced public criticism, not so much because it is factually wrong. Instead, the facts are delivered in such a way as to confuse the issue. Both-sides rhetoric potentially halts the conversation rather than moving it along — or, at least, moving it in a productive direction.
To suggest that this is a rhetorical problem is to suggest it is an ethical problem. Rhetoric is more than the words we use to persuade others. Those words come with frames that suggest to us (and others) how to create arguments and deal with evidence in the first place; it also has a lot to do with how our ideas circulate and have wider impact — that is, how they not only persuade but affect the way others make arguments and accept evidence.
That is the real trouble with our current “both-sides” rhetoric around the shutdown — it halts meaningful deliberation. We might say that this conversation is in stasis. Typically, “stasis” is widely understood as a stopping point — bringing to a halt, as in “to hold something in stasis.”
However, scholars of rhetoric have a different usage of stasis. In argumentation, what we are actually arguing about has a way of getting lost or confused in the exchange. Stasis is a method of asking questions about the main disagreements in an argument so all participants can identify the central dispute. That is, as a rhetorical concept, stasis offers a method for arriving at what is “at issue” in a debate. Stasis isn’t a stopping point; it is a meeting place.
For those of us not on Capitol Hill, it is easy to get confused and feel stuck when the finger pointing starts. That’s because we’re playing the wrong rhetorical game. And that matters insofar as the daily rhetorics we use shape public opinion.
Fortunately, stasis is a method explicitly designed to help us move.
Shutdown in Stasis
Here’s how stasis works. The table below shows the four main stases that are pertinent to this case:
questions of fact
questions of key terms
questions of judgment
what we should do
Conjecture focuses on the facts of the case. This is not a move for calling established facts into question but for when the facts of the case are unclear (“Was he at the scene of the crime ten minutes before?”). Definition focuses on the terms that we use. A favorite way of understanding definition is through contrast — the “apples to oranges” approach. Yet definition comes with ethical considerations. In defining how these two are different we often overlook all of the qualities they have in common. Our definition limits our view.
The latter two stases are a bit more complicated to wrap your head around. Quality focuses on arguments about how we should judge between options. If we both concede that apples and oranges are different fruits, then we can judge between whether we want an apple or orange. Which is better? Quality is about judgment between alternatives.
Policy is focused on arguments for what we should do in a situation — whether a course of action is feasible or desirable. Because policy is action-oriented, it is the sexier of the four stases. People often want to jump right into it. However, we often cannot debate a course of action — what we should do — if we don’t agree on the basic facts of the case. Yet we don’t have to think of stasis as a linear process (establish fact; settle terms; make key judgments; then debate a course of action). It is more useful as a method for shifting conversations.
Think of stasis as a game board. As your rhetorical opponent is making arguments, they are moving across the board. First, thinking about argument this way helps you better map out claims they are making; it also helps you better track their line of reasoning. When an opponent tries to change the subject by shifting the stasis (that is, move on the board), knowing where they are moving from helps better call the conversation back to where we should be if they take an unexpected turn. Similarly, when it is our turn, we can move our piece across the board as appropriate.
Shifting the Shutdown
We often get stuck playing the blame game because we take arguments in whole. But most arguments are composed of stasis shifts as much as they are of evidence or appeals. Let’s take a look at the president’s arguments about the shutdown in his first Oval Office address.
Trump’s speech performs a variety of stasis shifts — by my counting, at least 13 of them. For instance, his first shift is to move us across the board to definition by describing the situation as the “crisis at the border.” In a savvy move, he then moves over to quality with an appeal to shared values:
“America proudly welcomes millions of lawful immigrants who enrich our society and contribute to our nation. But all Americans are hurt by uncontrolled, illegal immigration.”
In this shift to quality, Trump tries to make this a conversation about judgment between good and bad immigrants. If we decide to consider this judgment, we consent to a key definition first — that we can categorize immigrants from certain places into types of immigrants.
He then quickly moves his piece back to define the situation as a “humanitarian crisis — a crisis of the heart and of the soul,” a “tragic reality” and a “cycle of human suffering.”
Another key shift across the board comes in placing the blame. In another move over to quality — the wall will “pay for itself” simply because $5.7 billion for the wall is less than $500 billion (the price tag he places on “illegal drugs”) — he asks us to judge between the two. He then moves hard back into definition — this will not be expensive because the trade deal with Mexico will pay for it; Democrats do not acknowledge his definition of “crisis”; they are the primary reason for the shutdown:
“The federal government remains shut down for one reason and one reason only: because Democrats will not fund border security.”
After a quick swipe into policy (Democrats must pass his bill), he turns back to refute the claim that the wall is “immoral.” Establishing blame seems to score the most points.
Clearly, stasis can still lead to the blame game.
Still, try mapping the president’s stasis shifting throughout the speech. You will see that a vast majority of the shifts he makes land squarely in the definition category. In all of this he is accumulating “points” that provide his definition rhetorical force — this is a crisis and it is the Democrats’ fault.
But what are the criteria for a crisis — or a national emergency? I am not certain those criteria have been satisfied in the president’s argument and others like it.
There is a fairly clear sequence of events that led to the shutdown: in December 2018, both the House and the Senate passed a budget. That bill included money for border security. The president vetoed that bill because he wanted money for the wall. The new Democratic House passed the same budget in early 2019; then the Senate refused to sign off on it again because it does not include funding for the wall. The blame game yet again locks us needlessly into conjectural argumentation. Yet the real endgame seems to reside in controlling the definition.
I think we need to maneuver back over to quality. Is it a good thing for anyone to use the livelihoods of federal workers as bargaining chips? Given all the mechanisms through which lawmakers can advocate for change, why is it that this was the bargaining chip that was chosen? We should, at least, come to a conclusion about whether or not this particular mechanism of political advocacy is unacceptable and counter to our shared ethics.
Of course, this is a government shutdown effecting people’s livelihoods — not a game. The only winners so far seem to be those who benefit from freezing a political base in partisan positions.
Still, stasis helps us see how rhetoric moves us around. It helps better understand the directions those shifts are taking and to decide whether we consent to that shift — or if we would like to shift some things ourselves.