Another national election is upon us, and the hysterical rhetoric is spreading faster than an African virus. At its most basic, politics is about having power over people. No one runs for office in order to rule the forest. Political rhetoric, however, tries to talk about things other than power, as we’ll see below.
Years ago here in Georgia we had a Senator named Sam Nunn, a very popular conservative Democrat. In the toxic smog of our current politics, however, conservative Democrats no longer seem to exist. Here’s what is even stranger. Conservative Republicans also seem not to exist. In the 1950s and 60s Republicans were a party of caution (i.e. conservative), with intellectuals advocating thoughtful policies that were publicly discussed. I’m sure conservative Republicans have to be out there, but they are cowed and in hiding.
What happened? At some point Republicans began to turn on one another, and even in the conservative National Review, 20 years ago there were articles in which the authors were willing to blowtorch anyone who disagreed with them. And that was the intellectuals. What was going to happen when such intolerance made its was down to the pickup truck voters? What happened was jihadist frenzy, i.e. the Tea Party, screaming about purity of thought like a Spanish priest during the Inquisition.
I live in a conservative state, Georgia, and in the current election, Republican David Perdue, the rich cousin of the last governor, is running for Senator against the daughter of former Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat Michelle Nunn. So both candidates fit into the American love of political dynasty families. Let’s step back from the petulant scowling now required in Congress and look at some of the calmer rhetoric used by these two candidates, at how they describe themselves. From the website of each, I’ve taken a short bit from the top of the page that talks about the candidate.
“David Perdue is a successful business leader with 40 years of real world business experience who helped grow some of America’s most recognizable companies including Sara Lee, Haggar, and Reebok. As a Fortune 500 CEO, David led the impressive expansion of Dollar General, creating thousands of quality jobs and adding billions to the value of the company. While working his way to the top of the business world, he gained a firsthand understanding of the global economy and the impact government policies have on businesses. David has lived and worked in Europe, Asia and throughout the United States, but he always relied on the values he learned from his Middle Georgia upbringing.”
Probably the most important point Perdue’s campaign has wanted to make is to emphasize his experience as a businessman. That experience is illustrated with a quick summary in the passage, referred to in three ways: (1) with time—40 years, (2) with space—“Europe, Asia, and throughout the United States”, and (3) with specific experience—Sara Lee, Haggar, Reebok, Fortune 500 CEO, Dollar General. Reading this paragraph, it’s clear that there is one point the reader should get: this guy has a lot of business experience.
For that point to work rhetorically, it depends on a motif that has been common in the U.S. for a long time, that running a company directly translates into being an effective politician. It is a common motif, but a very false one, in my opinion (politicians can’t just fire the people who won’t go along with the plan, and the purpose of government is not to make money). Much of the paragraph on Perdue is meant to connect with this motif, beginning with the phrase “successful business leader”—not just a businessman, but a business leader, and what do you know, a politician is also a leader.
“Michelle Nunn is a ninth-generation Georgian who has spent her life working to empower individuals and communities to make a difference by bringing people together in a collaborative way to solve problems and enact change. The daughter of Sam and Colleen Nunn, Michelle was born in 1966 in Macon near her grandparents’ farm in Perry, Georgia. Engagement in public service has been a hallmark of Michelle’s family, from her grandfather serving as Perry’s mayor to her father’s distinguished tenure in the United States Senate.”
The paragraph begins by trying to emphasize a connection with voters, with the opening reference to living in Georgia apparently since the time of George III. The first mention of Nunn’s father is fairly subtle, in a sentence with her mother and grandparents, so that the paragraph does not seem to be saying “Oh, and you know she’s the DAUGHTER of Sam Nunn,” which is, in reality, an extremely important fact for Nunn’s chances of winning. The paragraph does end with Sam Nunn, however, without mentioning his name again, leaving the reader with that reminder.
The paragraph is also carefully worded to support another major point the Nunn campaign wants to make. All voters in America are sick of the gridlock in Washington, so working together at least sounds good, and because Georgia is such a Republican state, if Nunn is to have a chance she has to show that she gets along with Republicans. Thus in the paragraph we see the phrases “bringing people together” and “in a collaborative way” to portray the idea that Nunn can work with lots of people, i.e. with Republicans.
In these two paragraphs, both Nunn and Perdue sound conservative in the down-home sitting-on-the-porch sense. Most of us here in Georgia may not have porches any longer, but we want to believe we could sit on that imaginary porch with Michelle and David and have a glass of iced tea and talk about what needs to be done. Good political rhetoric should make it seem like they would be the kind of people you could do that with. And still run a country.