Now that I live in one of the world capitals where language frequently rises to the level of howling Jupiter-size storms of bullshit, lies, and nonsense, it might be possible that I will pay more attention to rhetoric. Maybe. But I already pay a good bit of attention anyway, because I’m a Highly Qualified Professional at this sort of thing, and don’t you try this at home unless you want a spanking for that smart mouth.
And since we’ve got a presidential election going on, whooee!, stand back from the gates of rhetoric hell, because the bats are coming out. I hear people these days saying that there is much distortion and insufficient substance, and we have somehow (somehow) reached a new low in political discourse. The only thing I would disagree with is the “new low” part. It has always been low.
Politics is about power, and desire for power is a major motivating factor in human life. I could argue this point for those of you who disagree with this, but it would take longer than I want to spend here. In order to achieve a feeling of power, some people give up kicking their dogs and beating their children, and they go into politics instead, then cover up this low behavior by saying things about “helping the country”.
We wish politics was noble and logical, but it weren’t, it ain’t, and it won’t be, and it’s not just in America in 2012. Britain—a fairly well functioning democracy—has been famous for politicians going at one another’s throats. One of the most well-known exchanges was between Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, two men who despised each other . Gladstone once said to Disraeli, “I predict, Sir, that you will die either by hanging or of some vile disease”. Disraeli replied, “That all depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress”.
There are plenty of other examples, or we can look at American history, such as the claims by his opposition that Thomas Jefferson was an atheist, and therefore not morally fit to be president. During the 1860 election, there were people who could taste the bile just from hearing Abraham Lincoln’s name.
The election we have going on now will probably be remembered as fairly routine from a rhetorical point of view. Both sides really really want power, and they’ll use whatever rhetoric will get them there, including some pretty shady things, like claiming that Romney was more or less personally responsible for a woman dying when she lost her health insurance, or saying that Obama is a socialist who doesn’t even understand our American system. Both of these claims are extreme, even stupid, but…fairly routine. Political rhetoric.
Yesterday Mitt Romney named Paul Ryan as his choice for Vice President, which is all over the news. Let’s look at the rhetoric from a couple of quotes out of this morning’s Washington Post. Commenting on Romney’s choice, Representative Steve Israel of New York said, “Congressman Ryan and Mitt Romney are a match made in millionaires’ heaven, but they’ll be a nightmare for seniors who’ve earned their Medicare benefits.”
This quote has several interesting approaches, beginning with the fact that the two halves of the sentence contain two contrasts, most strikingly comparing “heaven” with “nightmare”. It might have been stronger if he had said “hell”, but maybe “nightmare” makes an interesting variation. The other contrast is to say that heaven is for millionaires and a nightmare is for seniors, implying of course seniors who are not rich. These images fit into the description of Romney that Democrats have been using, that he is only for the rich at the expense of the rest of us.
Another rhetorical approach of this quote is the variation on “made in heaven” with the addition of the word “millionaires”. Adding that word fits the image that was wanted, plus it’s a bit clever (a heaven just for millionaires? so I can’t go?), and we also get some alliteration on the “m” with “match made in millionaires’ heaven”. Everyone loves alliteration. Just ask Dunkin’ Donuts.
Or ask Paul Ryan, the new nominee for Vice President, who said at a rally yesterday that Obama has led the country toward “debt, doubt, despair, and decline”. Pretty obvious use of intentional alliteration, which is a popular rhetorical approach. As further poetical elements, each word in the list ends (by sound) with a consonant, the first two words have one syllable, and the second two both begin with “de”. It flows well.
From a political rhetoric perspective, each of those nouns would also be hard to either prove or disprove (even debt, really, because of how complicated those things are). Whether these things are true depends on point of view. If you agree, as Ryan’s audience would have anyway, then yeah, that’s what Obama did.
One thing we can note about both examples I’ve given is that neither millionaires’ heaven nor debt, doubt, despair, and decline is intended to persuade anyone to agree with what is being said. As is usual in political rhetoric, there’s not a hell of a lot of logic going on. Both sides were talking to people who already agree. Rhetoric, however, is about persuasion, so what were they after?
Both sides were saying to their own people, “Get excited, work hard, help us win”. Or as the choir master says to the choir on occasion, “Sing louder”.