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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Don’t Lecture an Empty Chair

October 26, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Talking to an empty chair isn’t the same as talking with another human being. Haranguing a chair is the functional equivalent of cursing the darkness rather than lighting a single candle. If Minnesota is going to move forward, we have to stop lecturing each other and start engaging.

Earlier this summer, actor and director Clint Eastwood addressed the Republican National Convention. On a whim, he brought an empty chair on stage then proceeded to speak with the chair as if President Obama were sitting in it. While the chair bit was a convention delegate hit, Eastwood’s routine largely flopped with the rest of the country.

Closer to home this month, Minnesota Viking punter Chris Kluwe, advocating marriage equality, proposed publicly debating the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage with an amendment supporter. When no one accepted his offer, Kluwe cheerfully stated that he’d debate an empty chair, winking at the Eastwood convention escapade.

Empty chairs as political props are not a recent phenomenon. They’ve been around as long as we’ve had chairs. The trick is always the same. Stage a public forum. While presented as a debate, the event is a thinly disguised core constituency rally dressed in objectivity’s trappings. Two chairs—one occupied and one empty—visually suggest an opponent that couldn’t be bothered to engage in thoughtful exchange. The event manipulates the audience by promising one thing while purposefully delivering another.

In formal rhetoric, this is known as the masked man fallacy. It involves illicitly substituting identicals. In an argument, a substituted proposition leads to a false conclusion because a true statement is quietly swapped with a similarly appearing false statement. Although the argument’s form remains the same, the manipulation results in a fallacious—or illogical—outcome. In other words, you can’t stage a public debate, presented as an honest exchange of opposing ideas, without two equally prepared debaters. Hectoring an empty chair may be fun but it’s not a debate.

Minnesota, like the nation, faces a considerable but not insurmountable fiscal challenge. The short version is that our economic activity and attending revenue generation mechanisms—taxes—aren’t aligned with our public infrastructure needs. We’re relying on taxation structures from 1972 for  what we need in 2012. Our economy has changed considerably in the past forty years; it’s reasonable to expect that taxation and public spending change as well but they haven’t.

Running counter to conservative anti-tax messaging, public revenue generation and services have evolved. Schools spend a lot less on chalk and more on a broader array of multimedia tools. Public works departments spend less on rock salt and more on complex blends of temperature-targeted ice-melting compounds. The Army still buys horses; it just maintains hundreds rather than hundreds of thousands as horses are now ceremonial and no longer functional.

Conservative policy advocates, however, have created a narrative that denies this evolution, replacing it with “government is out of control.” While unstained by data, the conservative policy narrative trumps objective data through voracious repetition. Repeating something doesn’t make it true, just familiar.

In the recording industry, echo effects, also known as reverberation, are artificially added to impart emotional resonance. As medieval composers and musicians discovered performing in stone-surfaced cathedrals and castles, sound is sustained by bouncing off of hard surfaces, delaying its fade. Modern musicians capture the same effect by manipulating studio environments. Whether it was the Beatles using Abbey Road Studio’s famous 1931 electro-acoustic echo chamber or the Doors putting a speaker and a mic in their recording studio’s washroom to boost Jim Morrison’s howl or even hip-hop producers pushing Auto-Tune into overdrive, the goal is the same. Performers are amplifying an illusion of emotional intensity and intimacy. Sincerity, on its own terms, has become insufficient.

It’s all well and good to be entertained by politics but entertainment distracts from the real public policy issues facing Minnesota. I’m not trying to be a kill-joy; in fact, quite the opposite. Like Hubert Humphrey, I believe that politics is a joy but that joy is subverted by fear-mongering and hectoring.

I enjoy Eastwood’s films. I would love to have a conversation with Eastwood because I know that he’s not the characters that he plays on the screen. But, we can’t all talk individually with Clint Eastwood, dissuading him from lecturing an empty chair. Instead, we can talk with each other as we consider policy assessment data. It’s what we need to do to bring our public policy priorities and needs in line with our public policy practices. Haranguing empty chairs won’t move Minnesota forward; only listening and thoughtful discussion can achieve that. Regretfully, both are in short supply.

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