Years ago we stopped in at a place that wanted to sell us a piece of land. The person we were talking to asked what we would enjoy and then asked us to imagine it was all there. We had to imagine it because he wanted to sell us our own dreams. Nothing he asked us to imagine was actually there or in the contract he wanted us to sign. Our children were young then and urged us to do it daddy and mommy.
I had the same sense of people trying to sell us our own dreams as I read The Word Doctors “Language of Financial Reform” prepared by Dr. Frank Luntz for Republicans. It’s a 17 page document with a standard formula. There are findings from polling data, followed by boxes labeled “words that work.” Those boxed recommendations feed the polling data back as language. And the language is clipped, bereft of explanation beyond a popular cliche.
Understand the trajectory we are on from the lengthy speeches I used to hear when I was young, to 30-second ads, to negative campaigning, to doctored words replacing any connection to reality.
Negative campaigning is essentially the method of the half-truth. Politicians or their consultants pick out one vote among many on which a clear message can be pinned despite many complex considerations that went into the vote. Thus simplified it can be hurled at us as fact.
That’s part of Dr. Luntz’ formula for doctored words too: “Two facts. Two statistics. Two clear-cut statements of evidence” are necessary to convince voters. But don’t go deeper. Americans don’t want to hear it. Throughout the piece there are warnings about things not to talk about, because Americans aren’t interested, he says, or because they don’t see certain issues as the problem. Feed the people back what they tell us in the polls.
From the half-truths of negative campaigning, we have now gone to cloud rhetoric, just sling stuff that’s in the air. Divorce politics from reality. It no longer looks like democracy.
Getting the rhetoric from the cloud of uninformed opinion and feeding it back gives up the effort to deal intelligently with policy. Just shoot from the hip at the other guys.
Cloud rhetoric opens the dam to the demons of rumor, innuendo, prejudice and mob psychology. We no longer share our sources of information across the political spectrum. What propagates is amplified by a like minded crowd that easily forms into dangerous mobs. Conflict gets attention. People who exaggerate their attacks on the “other” are applauded for “telling it like it is.” Extremism gets the praise.
We’ve seen where that led in Yugoslavia and we watch with concern as right wing European parties with ties to the Nazis gain in strength. One distinguished researcher has uncovered the crucial element in the periodic inter-religious violence in India in the lack of respectful and trusting cross-community communication. Most Americans have not studied the way that reasonable voices were drowned out in both the pre- and post-Civil War South leading first to the protection of slavery, then secession, and finally the reign of terror that haunted African-Americans for a century.
As American politics gets mired in extremism, as the American media gets splintered among segregated audiences, and our conversation substitutes cliches for reality, we cannot expect the blessings of fortune.
The principle task of our age is to find the way to replace the rhetoric, rumor, innuendo and prejudice of the crowd with respectful, and realistic dialogue. It’s not just policy that divides Obama from Palin – it’s an old fashioned American value of respect.
This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 4, 2010.