1. Hot Button Politics
Rhetoric is a dirty word in politics. Though its original meaning concerns the art of effective speaking, discourse, and argument, we are more likely today to hear the term bandied about as a pejorative directed at politicians. Terms or phrases such as “…that’s just rhetoric,” or “empty rhetoric” are usually employed to imply that a policy or speech is entirely without substance. There is occasional praise of eloquence in public figures and politicians, but on the whole “rhetoric” is something that is rather looked down upon.
The modern home of this type of rhetoric is what have come to be known as the “culture wars,” characterized by the clash between poloar opposite views around the “hot button” issues of gay rights, abortion, gun control, etc. At their most hyperbolic, and these debates are often nothing less than hyperbolic, appeal to the electorate is made not on the basis of substance or finer policy points, but on appeals to moral values. Each position, on whatever end of the spectrum, rests on a moral vision for a nation.
Whether its preserving the sanctity of marriage or standing up to government and preserving the vision of the Founding Fathers, which everyone seems to interpret differently, there is little appeal to what is really a better policy position. For example, is there a really a connection between the sexual orientation of parents and the well-being of a child? In the case of the drug war, is prohibition of narcotics really deterring individuals from using them or trafficking in them or just wasting resources and leading to needless incarceration? I’m not going to attempt to answer these questions here because they are not important or relevant.
What matters here is that the culture war is based on a certain type of identity politics. A position is sold to the voter not on its sensibility, but based on a sense of moral identification or the values represented by a position. It is Christian to align oneself with a particular party or platform. It is imperative as freedom loving individuals that any type of government expansion be opposed. Party alignment for workers is non-negotiable, no matter how much their supposed party of choice may continually screw them over.
It works like advertising. The product is sold not based on its function, but on the image that it will give the consumer. Historically, this has been a great tool for parties wanting to realign loyalties. Trumping up moral issues would often serve as an effective strategy for convincing voters to cast their lot with a party that did not truly serve their economic interests.
To say that politics is devoid of substance is really not saying anything new. I’ve written about this countless times and many other better writers have done a better job doing just the same. What’s more interesting is precisely how politics, especially in light of the culture wars, is completely devoid of substance. What I believe comes to light is precisely how many of those individuals seeking high office see their role and how they view the voter.
2. The Culture War Expanded
A few recent articles have either explicitly stated or hinted at the possibility that the culture war mentality is becoming especially widespread. I can’t quite endorse this position not having done thorough research on the use of such methods in previous elections, but the premise is nonetheless intriguing and very much worth considering.
Typically, the culture wars emphasized to those issues of LGBT rights, abortion, and gun control, the most heated of hot-button issues. There has been, however, a sense of identity politics playing out in other issues as well, particularly in the current race for the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination. Noah Millman, writing in the American scene, notes Mitt Romney’s devotion to the doctrine of American exceptionalism,
It’s in the last two elections that the trend of foreign policy being treated as part of the culture war – at least by the GOP – has become dominant. Mitt Romney is the exemplar in this regard; his entire foreign policy argument consists of saying that he knows America is exceptional and President Obama does not, and that Obama has been making too many concessions to America’s enemies (without any clear explanation of what those concessions might be). Obama has been a somewhat more belligerent steward of America’s existing posture than I anticipated (I fully expected the escalation in Afghanistan and the tough line on Pakistan, since he ran on both, but the Libyan war came as a modest surprise), but otherwise he’s been pretty much exactly what I expected him to be: a competent and fairly successful steward of America’s position as he inherited it. America has suffered no meaningful foreign policy setbacks during his tenure, and has had some notable successes.
Spencer Ackerman also picks up on Romney’s foreign policy, which he finds quite juvenile, but hard to square with the intellectual Romney portrayed in Robert Draper’s profile of Romney in New York Times Magazine. Ackerman writes,
The man who can spot-translate French to search for historical lessons about weighty meta-issues in civic and geopolitical culture does not also believe that diplomacy should the province of military super-viceroys. He does not also believe that there is an undifferentiated Islamist menace. He most certainly does not believe that the Russkies are coming.
But he does believe that Americans will not elect a president who can spot-translate French to search for historical lessons about weighty meta-issues in civic and geopolitical culture. And so this is what he pretends to be. All while he claims that Obama has insufficient respect for America.
The Millman article especially puts forward the notion that foreign policy is now part of the culture war and that platforms are developed on the basis of identity and morality rather than sensibility. Despite putting itself forward as the party of small government and less spending, the GOP remains insistent on maintaining a belligerent and full-throttle foreign policy based on outdated ideas of America’s role in the world and perceptions of America’s enemies. This despite the fact that Obama doesn’t really need to prove his credentials as belligerent .
One might even find the ongoing discourses of “punishing success” when it comes to the push for raising taxes, or Herman Cain’s proclamation that if you’re poor blame yourself, as evidence of the culture wars now finding their way into economic issues. Robert Reich even goes so far as to call the GOP the new social darwinists, promoting an unchecked market devoid of public goods or social services. This idea, whether or not it leads to economic prosperity or unmitigated disaster or savage inequalities, is put forth on normative grounds. The free market and small government are simply good things in all cases. This is what the founders intended and it must be preserved at all costs.
Though these pieces all make a similar point and emerged within a few days of one another, I don’t doubt that one could argue that American politics has long been an all encompassing culture war of substance free politics. It was certainly present in the 2010 midterm elections. Their central premise is nonetheless hard to deny.
3. The Mask of Statesmanship
Rhetoric’s bad reputation is not new. In Plato’s dialogue the Gorgias, my personal favourite of the bunch, Socrates squares off with the title character, a publicly lauded orator and maker of public speeches. This debate, which takes up the first part of a long and complicated dialogue, concerns the art of oratory and rhetoric.
The important takeaway that emerges is that there is nothing inherently good about speechmaking or oratory, but that an art such as rhetoric which is concerned with persuasion can be used for both just and unjust purposes, especially when directed at an audience that has no knowledge of the topic at hand. Speeches may be devoid of substance, but often the speechmaker makes it so deliberately.
In the words of Gorgias, “[t]he orator has the ability to speak against everyone on every subject, so as in gatherings to be more persuasive, in short, about anything he likes, but the fact that he has the ability to rob doctors of their reputations doesn’t give him any more of a reason to do it. He should use oratory justly, as he would any competitive skill (457).”* Here, Gorgias hints at the fact that he can be more convincing than a doctor in matters of medicine, though the doctor certainly has more actual knowledge of the subject, something which Gorgias admits at another point in the dialogue.
In short, oratory is not a matter of producing knowledge in listeners, but merely producing conviction via persuasion. It is not necessary, as any observer of modern politics knows, to convince voters by appealing to knowledge or even showing that the speaker possesses any great knowledge. In fact, this is anathema in an increasingly anti-intellectual political environment.
Socrates concludes on the topic of oratory that it “…doesn’t need to have any knowledge of the state of their subject matters, it only needs to have discovered some advice to produce persuasion in order to make itself appear to those who don’t have any knowledge that it knows more than those who actually do have it (459, c).”
Oratory, Socrates says, wears the mask of justice, just as cosmetics wears the mask of health, aiding one to appear in better health and more aesthetically pleasing than they may really be. Oratory engages in flattery, appealing to more base instincts rather than what is more just or good or right.
4. The Big Sale
Those engaging in the culture war, and those who reduce the entire political process to nothing more than a clash of cultures are themselves wearing the mask of justice or what I’ve called here the mask of statesmanship. Though they claim to be acting out of patriotism and love of their country or a desire to “take back America,” their rhetoric seems to point to other motives entirely.
Their willingness to ignore the reality of matters of foreign policy or failure to truly investigate what might be a sensible solution to the complex matters surrounding the aforementioned hot-button issues makes them not so much statesmen concerned with the stewardship of their country, but rather brazen careerists bent on winning office at any costs. To do so, they willingly ignore reality and appeal not to the reason of voters, but to their most volatile and emotional sensibilities.
Politics, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, is often rightly decried as being devoid of substance. It is more complex, however, than an uninformed dialogue permeating the electoral process. What we are seeing throughout this race for the GOP nomination and what we’ll no doubt continue to see once both parties get in on the action in the 2012 electoral season, and what we no doubt see in any other election in essentially any other modern democracy, is a group of individuals engaging in a deliberate act of deception in an attempt to win support, often by ignoring effective policy in favour of cheap sentiment and emotional or moral appeal.
This is how politics is devoid of substance. Not due to the ignorance of those seeking office, but due to their willingness to deceive voters who they know will eat up cheap slogans. They are, in a sense, rather sophisticated and cunning in the same way that advertisers who convince us to buy their unnecessary and useless products are sophisticated and cunning.
Such politicians are not really truly politicians. The culture war is a sale, an attempt for careerists and narcissists to sell themselves by trading on the fear and moral panic of the electorate. It is a sale based on cheap slogans. These are not statesmen, just salesmen.
There is much more to this cheap and substance-free politics that one might initially assume, and it is the voter that truly suffers. What actually happens when these individuals take office and must satisfy the demands of those who elected them when those demands, which they fostered throughout the electoral process, are unable to square with reality? What happens to the well-being of citizens and what happens to their state? The fact is we are currently in the process of finding out.
*These citations refer to the Stephanus page, the numbers in the margin usually found in any printing of Plato’s dialogues.