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Straw Man

A “straw man” refers to an intentionally misrepresented proposition or argument that is set up because it is easier to defeat than an opponent’s real argument.

Essentially, the person using the straw man tactic will exaggerate, oversimplify, or distort an opponent’s position and then attack this fabricated version, rather than addressing the actual argument.

The term likely derives from the practice of using human figures made of straw for target practice. Because these figures are lifeless and unable to defend themselves, they are an easy target.

This imagery lends itself to the rhetorical tactic where an easily refuted argument is substituted for the real issue at hand.

The use of a straw man argument is a common political strategy, especially in high stakes debates or speeches.

In political debates, a candidate might misrepresent an opponent’s stance on a particular issue, making it appear more extreme or unreasonable, and then attack this fabricated position.

Political commentators might employ the tactic to criticize political figures or parties, constructing a version of the argument that is more easily dismantled.

Within legislative bodies, members might use straw man arguments to undermine proposals by oversimplifying or misrepresenting them.

Understanding the dynamics of the straw man argument provides insights into political strategy, the role of rhetoric in shaping public opinion, and the challenges of fostering honest and constructive dialogue within the often adversarial realm of politics.

Whether used as a deliberate strategy or unintentionally, the tactic can obstruct meaningful dialogue and undermine trust in political discourse.

One of the most famous uses was Vice President Richard Nixon’s infamous Checker’s speech, where he used the straw man fallacy to deflect from charges that he misappropriated election funds.

More on “Straw Man”

The tendency of politicians to argue against positions that nobody actually holds—in other words, an imaginary opponent. By extension, this mischaracterizes opponents’ views, making them easier to argue against. This approach assumes voters are stupid and incapable of critical thinking.

The Online Etymology Dictionary dates its figurative use to 1896. Though politicians of all kinds employ it, presidents, naturally, have the loudest megaphone to put forward such fallacies.

Conservatives regularly inveigh against President Barack Obama for constructing too many straw men. In particular they cite his second inaugural speech, in January 2013, for containing a series of straw-man arguments.

“We reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future,” Obama said. “For we remember the lessons of our past, when twilight years were spent in poverty and parents of a child with a disability had nowhere to turn.”

But that was a false verbal construct. Nobody was proposing pushing Granny off a cliff. What was at issue in D.C. budget battles was some sort of balance in spending and tax priorities, not a total abolition of programs to help the elderly and disabled, as Obama seemed to be implying.

That led Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee, to blast Obama’s “straw man” attack on the Republican Party over entitlement programs. Ryan told The Laura Ingraham Show the next day the speech demonstrated the president did not understand the Republican position on entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.

Obama’s immediate predecessor, George W. Bush, was him-self a master of straw-man phony issues. A March 2006 Associated Press article detailed numerous examples of Bush’s use of the “straw man argument.”

The AP noticed that Bush frequently began sentences with “some say” or “some in Washington believe,” referring to “Democrats or other White House opponents.” By not naming them, Bush was more free to omit “an important nuance or [substitute] an extreme stance that bears little resemblance to their actual position.” Bush could then knock “down a straw man of his own making” that nobody would actually defend.

From Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes © 2014 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “Straw Man” in a sentence

  • During the televised debate, the senator accused his opponent of using a political straw man argument, misrepresenting his stance on tax reform as an attempt to favor the wealthy, rather than a nuanced approach to stimulate economic growth.
  • The political commentator noted that the recent editorial attacking the mayor’s education policy relied heavily on a straw man, painting the policy as a radical departure from traditional education, rather than addressing the actual proposed changes.