John Sununu, former White House chief of staff under the Senior Bush and former New Hampshire governor, spoke to the press on a conference call today. While the habitually aggressive Sununu presented many (many) logical fallacies in his comments we’re going to focus on just one.
In “Romney surrogate Sununu: ‘I wish this president would learn how to be an American’” NBC News reports these comments:
“The president clearly demonstrated that he has absolutely no idea how the American economy functions. The men and women all over America who have worked hard to build these businesses, their businesses from the ground up is how our economy became the envy of the world — it is the American way, and I wish this president would learn how to be an American.” [Emphasis added.]
This is a form of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy and is very common in politics. This fallacy is sometimes also called “an appeal to purity” in that any dissent or seeming contradiction can be explained away by questioning the foundation of the opposing viewpoint. In essence the opposing viewpoint is ignored because of a “new rule” for determining participation in the argument.
For example, David claims that all Star Wars fans hate Jar Jar Binks. Jerry replies that he is a Star Wars fan and likes Jar Jar Binks. David replies that Jerry can’t be a real Star Wars fan!
While we must admit that it does seem obvious that the existence of Jar Jar Binks is a crime against humanity we cannot logically make hatred of him a prerequisite of Star Wars fandom. Clearly there are some (possibly deranged) fans that do indeed like Jar Jar.
In case at hand Sununu is dismissing the policies of a president by implying he’s not an “American” (or, at the very least, isn’t acting like one). What must follow is that his policies aren’t “American” either. This, of course, despite the fact that those policies (having been enacted in America by elected American leaders) are by definition “American”.
The No True Scotsman fallacy is often used as a “short cut”. Implying that an opponent doesn’t meet the basic requirements of participation means that you can ignore their positions completely! It really makes debating so much simpler. If applied often (and loudly) you can sometimes get away without having to actually engage on any actual issue at all!
For what it’s worth Sununu, as expected, later backed off his claims saying “What I thought I said, but I guess I didn’t say, is that the president has to learn the American formula for creating business, if I didn’t give all that detail I apologize.” For our purposes the backpedaling doesn’t really enter into the discussion however.