This article was last modified on August 19, 2011.


Empire Strikes First: Style and Substance

The recall elections are starting to be a fading memory. How you interpret them is up to you — is this an endorsement of the Republican agenda? Did the Democratic gains signal a shift in the mood of the state, a buyer’s remorse? For me, I think any grand interpretation is misguided; what happened is what any rational observer would expect to happen. The weakest gazelles were devoured by the lions. With his various personal and legal problems, did anyone really expect Randy Hopper to survive? I suspect his ouster was fueled more by personality than policy.

And why not? Politics is a popularity contest. You might recall teachers telling you that student government was not about popularity. That was a lie, just as it is a lie to think that real politics is any more serious. Sure, substance is important. But style is the deciding factor. Thinking back to the 2008 Democratic primaries, why did Obama defeat Clinton? Sure, his proposed policies struck a chord in the hearts of the youth. But let us face facts — even if you agreed with Hillary’s positions, the media has convinced you that she is a “bitch”. Admit it. We all “hate” her, and do we even know why?

But this is not a column on how the media portrays Clinton as a bitch, Mitt Romney as “weird” or Michele Bachmann as “crazy”. This is a column on how politicians influence the media and therefore the national conversation. The very language we use affects our beliefs, our voting and ultimately the laws that are enacted. We have to talk the talk of Washington — we have to know what a “debt ceiling” is and what it means to “default”. Plain English is not allowed in Rhetoricland.

Winning a debate should require facts, but sometimes it is manipulation of language that wins the fight. The classic example raised by professor of linguistics George Lakoff is the idea of “tax relief”. When we talk about tax cuts, we can have an honest debate — are the taxes too high, too low, do they fund the right things? But once we say tax “relief”, we have twisted the argument in favor of cuts before the discussion even begins. And if we get the newspapers and CNN on board with the term relief, the conversation is shifted. How can anyone be opposed to relief, with the implication being that we are under some sort of stress?

We are still involved in a Global War on Terror, started up again in 2001 by President Bush and expanded by President Obama. One reason we went this route was the choice of the word “war”. We say the terrorists “declared war” and not that they “committed a crime”. The criminal response says we hunt them down and put them on trial, the same as we did for domestic terrorists like the Unabomber or Timothy McVeigh. And you might say, “Well, sure, they were Americans, not foreign agents.” But then you have forgotten the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, where terrorists connected to Kuwait and Pakistan were arrested, put on trial and convicted. Not one bomb was dropped from an American plane in retaliation and justice was served to those involved. But once we say the “enemy” has “declared war” (something that is not legally or technically true) it puts us in the frame of mind that we need to defend ourselves militarily. Billions of dollars later and thousands of lives lost, the threat of terror has not diminished one iota and our country has financially collapsed in a way that mimics bin Laden’s greatest fantasy.

The Democrats have tried to play the language game, but simply do not seem to get the hang of it. There has even been a push to call “trial attorneys” the new moniker of “public protection attorneys” to avoid the stereotype of ambulance chasers, but this name has refused to catch on.

As evidenced by the “war” and “relief” examples, the Republicans are much better at manipulating language than the Democrats are, which is one reason the Dems increasingly have to play in the opposing field — the Right has set all the rules. Republican strategist Frank Luntz keeps his crew in line, telling them to say “exploring for energy” rather than “drilling for oil” to avoid the environmental backlash. He suggests saying “Washington” rather than “government” when criticizing those in power — government includes police and firefighters, who should never be maligned by association. And there again, once those terms are established, only one choice remains — who is against exploring for energy?

Some political debates have stalemated, with abortion being a prime example. We accept both the term “pro-life” and “pro-choice” without any hint that one side is anti-choice or anti-life (though the idea of the “baby killer” still pops up from time to time). The squabbles continue and valid points are raised — far too many pro-life people are pro-death penalty or care very little about the quality of the lives they save, for example. If your foundation is Christian morality, you ought to follow it in all cases and not just one. Condemn not the sinner, and keep the needy children clothed and fed. Hypocrisy could likely be found in many pro-choice supporters’ beliefs, too, if the belief itself is not callous and cynical enough.

What is the next step for democracy? Do we fight to inject more substance and tone down style, or do we accept the political situation as unchangeable and work within the framework of rhetoric rather than real progress? As much as we should strive to change the system, we must be aware that with 24-hour news and commentary, the “echo chamber” of the media makes rhetoric more powerful today than ever before. A single sound bite may be replayed literally thousands of times, and the emotional appeal has more value than its truth. We cannot go backwards, but we may have to sink to a lower level in order to go forward. To not play the game, as terrible as it may be, is to lose before things have even begun.

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or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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