Campaign Rhetoric 2008 (1958?)

Like a lot of you, I’ve been thinking lately about politics and the upcoming election. Some of this thinking has been deliberation about political issues, but not much. Rarely do I get inspired enough by any candidate to vote wholeheartedly for that person, and for me elections are usually about voting the lesser of two evils. Sometimes the lesser evil isn’t even evil, which is a nice change. Considering that I’ve been voting for twenty years in five different states and few candidates I’ve voted for have won, perhaps I’m just a jinx and should vote for the most evil candidate for a change.

We all have different evils. My top ones are stupidity, ignorance, and viciousness. I know this might make me "unAmerican" or "elitist," but I’ll come out and say that I don’t think stupid or ignorant people should be in charge of things, no matter how nice they are. I think I’m pretty smart and knowledgeable, and as a smart and knowledgeable citizen I want people even smarter and more knowledgeable than me running the government. Always I am puzzled when I read about voters who vote for candidates "because they seem like me." Do any of these voters think they’d be qualified to be President? Apparently they do. I don’t think I am, and I don’t think they are either.

In elections, the stupidity, ignorance, and viciousness come out mostly in the campaign rhetoric, and though I find practical politics distasteful for the most part, I’m definitely interested in political rhetoric. Some of the rhetoric in this campaign sounds like it was pulled from a shelf where it had rested since the fifties, dusted off, and put to use once more. Consider the "socialist" label that’s come into use recently. I guess some people think Cold War rhetoric never stales. When the word socialist is used as an attack in American politics, stupidity, ignorance, or viciousness – and perhaps all of them – are almost always present.

I’m not aware of any Presidential candidate in any major American political party that is a socialist. Is there a candidate who wants to nationalize any of the means of production, or, in the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick’s words, prevent capitalist acts between consenting adults.  Some Americans seem terribly frightened by something called "socialized medicine," but does either major Presidential candidate have a plan to nationalize the health industry? And even if our health service were truly nationalized, would that alone make America a "socialist" country? Would even Hayek think that alone would be enough to put us on the road to serfdom? Oh, I know. It’s the slippery slope. The thin end of the wedge. Nationalize health care, and next thing you know the one party state will force us all to march down Main Street in lockstep singing the Internationale.

There was a time when politicians called supporters of Social Security or Medicare socialists. The implication is that any state relief for the poor or the sick is "socialist," the only problem being that the provision of such service has nothing inherently to do with socializing the means of production or nationalizing any industries and  predates socialism in the West by centuries. Philosophically this is suspect, and historically it’s nonsense. Elizabethan England had poor relief. Was Queen Elizabeth a socialist? The Catholic Church has provided poor relief for centuries. Was St. Thomas a socialist? Any politicians trying to use the word socialist to frighten the ignorant are either too ignorant to know what socialism is, too stupid to make fairly easy distinctions between socialist and capitalist economies, or too vicious to tell the truth.

Another curious rhetorical strategy reminiscent of the fifties is the unAmerican label, as if anyone could actually define what an American is other than by citizenship. One of the candidates for office this year has spoken of "real Americans." Rhetorically, this is an interesting phrase. It involves what the rhetorician Chaim Perelman calls the "dissociation of ideas." In The Realm of Rhetoric he discusses the way some philosophers have split a term into two parts to separate appearance and reality and provide a criterion to distinguish the merely apparent in a particular term.

Term I corresponds to the apparent, to what occurs in the first instance, to what is actual, immediate, and known directly. Term II, to the extent that it is distinguished from it, can be understood only by comparison with term I: it results from a dissociation effected within term I with the purpose of getting rid of incompatibilities that may appear between different aspects of term I. Term II provides a criterion, a norm which allows us to distinguish those aspects of term I which are of value from those which are not (127).

Perelman analyzes the way Plato and Plotinus use this rhetorical strategy to "devalue the sensible world," and politicians who make this move attempt to devalue those who aren’t "real," in much the same way. Often this rhetorical move is fallacious. Philosophers sometimes call it the "no true Scotsman" fallacy, but we can call it the "no real American" fallacy. "No American would support policy X." "But millions of Americans support policy X. " "Well, no real American would support it." Q.E.D.

Both of these rhetorical strategies are contained in a comment on a blog post at the Heritage Foundation, where someone named "Dave" writes that "NO REAL AMERICAN WOULD VOTE FOR A SOCIALIST LIKE OBAMA." The all caps indicate that "Dave" is a very passionate person who wants to make sure you don’t miss his clever point. (By the way, "Dave" also thinks Barney Frank caused the recent banking crisis.)

Sloppy thinking is hardly the sole property of any one political party. Most of us are guilty of fallacious thinking about all sorts of unexamined issues. We think we’re absolutely right and everyone who doesn’t agree with us is just wrong. Sometimes we even think that people who disagree with us are not only wrong, but evil as well. Sometimes it might even be true. I’m glad the election will be over soon, because for the most part the lies, distortions, and oversimplifications of campaign rhetoric on both sides depress me. Just about the only enjoyment I get out of campaign rhetoric is analyzing the fallacies and playing "spot the stupid person." The sad thing is the stupid person often wins.

2 thoughts on “Campaign Rhetoric 2008 (1958?)

  1. I guess this sort of criticism doesn’t make for tasty sound bites. It would have been completely possible for a campaign to take the high road and criticize Obama intelligently. Alas, that isn’t what happened.

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