Swans Commentary » swans.com October 8, 2007  



Politicolingo & The Vanishing Art Of Rhetoric


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - October 8, 2007)   What do Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, John Edwards, John McCain, Joe Biden, Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, and Barack Obama all have in common?

They all talk "politicolingo," which is that porous, banal, eminently-forgettable diction that regularly impoverishes political discourse in America. (I grant you that Senator Barack Obama occasionally has shining moments of lucidity and so, strictly speaking, doesn't belong on that list -- but there are enough populist clichés in the mix to include him.)

When one politician attacks another for spouting "rhetoric," it is usually considered an insult. But rhetoric, according to Webster, is "the art of speaking or writing effectively .... skill in the effective use of speech," adhering to "the principles and rules of composition formulated by critics of ancient times." By that definition, we do not have too much rhetoric in our electoral campaigns, but far too little.

It is hard to achieve eloquence when the issues one is dealing with are tax cuts, immigration reform, health programs, and the endlessly reiterated clichés of the Iraq War. The natural tendency discussing such topics is to spout statistics and drown listeners in a turbulent sea of facts -- more usually factoids. Among American politicians, there is something irresistible about rearranging moral clichés and something daunting about entering the realm of philosophy or dialectics. ("Mustn't confuse Joe 6-pack." "Plain speech from plain people.") And yet the best political oratory -- Jefferson, Paine, Franklin, Hamilton -- never shirked from using the particular as a springboard into philosophical generalizations and deep conceptual thought.

Contemporary political diction has become the realm of the spinmeisters, and perhaps it has ever been thus. Most of the more memorable presidential phrases have been cribbed from other sources, deftly rephrased, and gussied up in fashionable togs. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," said Franklin D. Roosevelt in his Inaugural address in 1933, which isn't very far removed from Thoreau's "Nothing is so much to be feared as fear," written in his journal in September 1850, and similar observations traceable back to the sermons of John Donne. Since FDR's "New Deal," we have been offered "square deals," "fresh deals," "big deals" -- everything but i-deals. Every politician wanting to distinguish himself from the banality of the past has offered a "new" something-or-other. Gary Hart was perhaps the most vociferous dealer in "newness" but the tradition is still very much alive in the lead-up to the 2008 election as well.

Some statesmen can effectively use rhetoric to simplify larger, more complicated concepts. When Lincoln said, "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy," he reduced a broad concept into a pellucid image that virtually anyone could understand. But contemporary politicians go looking for the short, sharp, catchphrase whether it has intellectual resonance or not. Like the advertising slogan which is its model and its inspiration, what counts is "punch" and "immediacy" -- despite the fact that behind these words lie muddle and abstraction. ("The war to end all wars," "We will step down when they step up," "Fight them there so we won't have to fight them here.") Once such words are placed under a magnifying glass, they reveal serious blemishes and imperfections. They raise more questions than they answer.

"Addressing the issues" has become a justification for clinging to the periphery of subjects that can only be truly addressed if analyzed down to their fundament. But this is considered a "no-no" among both speechwriters and politicians. The American public has to be comforted and reassured and treated as if their literacy is just about at the level of the high-school dropout. We all know that past "intellectuals" such as Adlai Stevenson and Norman Thomas never become front-runners and to dig too deeply or to become too high-falutin' is a sin that American voters do not forgive. The Common Man, it would seem, must be approached with "a common tongue" and dispense only that which is commonplace. Bush's great appeal to the Great Unwashed is that he stumbles and plods like most other Americans, fudging syntax, mispronouncing words, and relying on readymade bromides. This is the gist of American diction and it is comforting to the masses to hear it issuing from the mouth of its leader.

As a result, politicolingo has become the favored and reassuring American language; a fuzzy, abstract sound like elevator music piping out standards that are comforting because familiar. In the midst of this jabberwocky, commitments are forever being "renewed," freedom "re-dedicated," vigilance "maintained," and "The American Dream," like some sacred dogma constantly hovering on the brink of dissolution, desperately reaffirmed -- but almost never defined.

The spinmeisters evolve "character" with as much ingenuity and forethought as the dramatist does. Whatever will "fly" with the American voter is incorporated into the dramatis personae -- i.e., the political contenders. Public utterances are merely monologues provided by speechwriters and handlers to flesh out the "characters" arrived at through market research and the application of popular psychology. Consequently, an election becomes what it has always been: an entertainment. Or to be more exact, a "vehicle" for carefully-cast performers to do their stuff. And, as with all "scripts" intended for mass consumption, there is a priority placed on accessible language, familiar ideas, and "feel-good endings." In such a mix, it is no wonder that rhetoric falls by the wayside. How can true eloquence or original thought emerge from so prefabricated a setting?

Eloquence is almost always in opposition to verbal embellishment. It is always original ideas clearly and simply expressed which reverberate to deeper issues that really sway the public -- whether in a play or an election. To achieve that kind of eloquence, one needs a well-honed intellect to drill one's way through an encrusted façade. The "issues" have to be grounded in wellsprings, not topsoil, and homilies have to be rigorously avoided. "I rethink therefore I am," Descartes should have said in trying to describe the true nature of ratiocination.

But that kind of approach is alien to modern American politics because it is too risky and, during election campaigns, caution is always the watchword. A politician, almost by definition, is someone who "watches his words." And so, the absence of true rhetoric is not simply an absence of oratorical flair, but a deep-seated refusal to confront truths that take refuge beneath the façade of language.

"Democracy," said H. L. Mencken, "is the theory that the common people know what they want -- and deserve to get it good and hard!" In this era when Republicans are vilified and Democrats unable to obtain congressional approval for the programs that swept them into office, that is both an epigram and a prophecy which has come true.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published October 8, 2007