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Warrants and Presidential Politics

posted: 6.29.12 by Donna Winchell

The warrant is the element of argument that invariably gives students the most trouble. Stating an argument in the form of the triad of claim, support, and warrant adequately sums up only a very simple argument or a very clear cut one. Arguments are generally much more complex than that triad would suggest, although it is an invaluable means of checking the validity of a part of an argument.

When I started thinking about how warrants can be used in discussing the logic behind why people vote the way they do in presidential elections, I had to admit that stating an argument in terms of  claim, support, and warrant works perfectly for those who choose a candidate based on a single issue. I’m sure there are polls that tell how many voters base their votes on a single issue—and even which issues those are. There are those, of course, who will not vote for Romney because he is a Mormon. It’s not good logic, but that probably won’t change many of those voters’ minds, just as it didn’t change the minds of those who for many years believed we shouldn’t have a Catholic president or a divorced president or a biracial president. For good or ill, the same simple logic is behind voting for a candidate solely because of his or her position on abortion or same-sex marriage or immigration. On the one extreme is the author of a letter to the editor of my local newspaper who last week wrote that we shouldn’t care what Obama’s personal opinion on same-sex marriage is. On the other extreme is the voter who argues that a president shapes laws and their interpretation far beyond his time in office through his selection of Supreme Court justices.

Our students need to learn to examine the warrant behind each line of reasoning they use in support of a claim. It makes their jobs harder because they have to educate themselves about their subjects. At election time it means listening to the candidates’ ideas on at least fair sampling of the huge range of issues that a president is in a position to influence.

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One Response to “Warrants and Presidential Politics”

  1. Jack Solomon Says:

    The claim-support-warrant paradigm is a an elegant description of the structure of an argument, but, of course, it does not guarantee that the argument is a valid one. A great many current political arguments, for example, constitute false syllogisms of the “Bob likes carrots; rabbits like carrots; therefore Bob is a rabbit or has been duped by a rabbit” variety. The claim here would appear to be that Bob is a rabbit or a fellow traveler of rabbits. The support (or relevant datum) is that Bob likes carrots. The warrant is that only rabbits like carrots.

    So just because one has a warrant doesn’t mean that one has a valid argument (not that you are saying this at all; I’m just expanding on your suggestion). If one uses the Toulmin model for teaching, then, it is very important to include the kind of critical thinking necessary to evaluate whether a warrant is valid or not.