Choose Your Rhetoric: Power or Compassion?
Power versus Compassion in Presidential Campaign Rhetoric
If the Presidential campaign were a football game, it’s beginning to look like the Republicans have the ball and the Democrats are playing defense. The Republicans attack, and the Democrats answer. The aggressor controls the game, which makes the Democrats look like losers. Why does this happen? I don’t think it’s just because Republicans are meaner than the Democrats.
One way (and it is just one way) to understand this is to look at the images of themselves offered by each party – or better, at the two very different attitudes, or postures, each party offers to voters. Each of these postures carries with it a way to feel about yourself and the world. So the choice we are offered is this: Do you want to feel like you do when you take on the attitudes of the Democrats, or the way you feel when you stand with the Republicans? This is a choice we make unconsciously, and it shapes the way we see the issues. So let’s look at the two parties’ political rhetoric to see what feelings they are offering voters. This is an inquiry into rhetoric, not into the actual policies the two parties use in governing; on that score, there is a lot less difference between them than their rhetoric suggests. And yet the rhetorical differences are deep and significant.
Let’s look at what each party takes to be the central concern voters have. For the Democrats, it’s the well-being of ordinary Americans. The big issue is the economy and how it affects the “middle-class” –- the group they assume most of us want to identify with. In Joe Biden’s acceptance speech, he spoke of millions of ordinary families gathered around kitchen tables worrying about their bills, jobs, sending kids to college, meeting health-care costs. When Democrats talk about the war and foreign policy, the focus is on how the war affects the everyday lives of American families –– military families, of course, but also how many schools and hospitals could be built with the money being spent in Iraq. The Democrats make a point of caring about how well we’re all doing, and it speaks to us as ones who care. Thus Obama in his acceptance speech says, “We are more compassionate than a government that lets veterans sleep on our streets and families slide into poverty...”. And Biden said, “I've never seen a time when Washington has watched so many people get knocked down without doing anything to help them get back up.” The Democrats are all about helping people, making life better, and they ask us to join with them in that purpose. A compassionate nation wants to live in peace, and would rather negotiate to resolve international conflicts.
What about the Republicans? They assume that voters’ central concern is and, ought to be, the strength of the nation. They appeal to our desire to be proud of being Americans, citizens of the best and most powerful country in the world. So we want to maintain the military might that can force other nations to honor and obey us. This is as it should be because we are good and those who object to us are either evil or soft on evil. We do not negotiate with enemies or try to understand their point of view. This is why Republican candidates project themselves as strong and resolute, willing to use military force with little concern for the human costs. Republican economic philosophy appeals to us as individuals who can take care of ourselves: we don’t need government to help us or advise us how to live. Government is a burden for the good citizen, and we must reduce it to its only legitimate function: to attack our external and internal enemies.
Republican campaign rhetoric, then, resembles a call to arms. It identifies enemies to fight, not only foreign ones like communism, terrorism, or radical Islam, but internal ones –liberals, intellectuals, elitists –anyone who seems friendly to our enemies or irresolute about fighting them.
So here’s the contrast: Republicans appeal to the desire to feel strong. The Democrats appeal to the desire to feel compassionate. So the outcome depends on which way we’d rather feel. The desire to be made stronger by one’s political party will be most appealing to those who feel weak and afraid to admit it. People can afford to feel compassionate if they are strong enough to admit that they are human, that we all need help from everyone. Republican rhetoric speaks to the first group, to people who are afraid to admit that they are afraid of being weak. The Democrats are wimps who want to negotiate instead of fight with our enemies. Join them and be weak; join us and be strong, say the Republicans.
Democrats sometimes defend themselves by claiming to be just as tough on, say, Iran or Al Qaida or crime, but their claims are weakened by their rhetorical commitment to compassion. Toughness is not their issue.
Democrats can reply by pointing out, quite rightly, that Republicans ignore the people’s needs –– the needs for better schools, health-care, cleaner air and water. But this argument asks the voters, in effect, to put their human needs ahead of the strength of the nation, that is to think of themselves as needy, i.e. weak. The Republicans have a better offer: stick with us and be a fully vested member of the strongest nation on earth. Stand with us, and feel fully justified in your envy and discomfort with highly educated intellectuals, people with funny names and people who don’t look like you. You are right to hate them, and together we will beat them.
The strongest, that is the most passionate, attacks Democrats make is that Republicans are stupid: Republicans refuse to think through what their ham-fisted actions will do in the world and how others will interpret them.
Unfortunately, this attack also recoils against the Democrats. For voters primarily concerned with feeling strong but afraid of being weak, thinking things through looks weak next to the cudgel the Republicans are offering. Moreover, many voters are already ashamed of their inability to follow extended policy analysis––the “issues” Democrats are always going on about. Republicans make it simple: would you rather stand up for your country against its foes, or retreat behind a smoke screen of fancy words?
It’s obvious, then, why the Republicans prefer a campaign of personal attacks to a discussion of issues, and, perhaps, why their convention which was one big negative ad, provided them with momentum and increased support in the polls. Their strategy is perennial, and it will work unless something happens to make the Republican ticket look so stupid as to be weak, or unless enough swing voters realize that the militaristic nationalism of the last seven years have only made us weaker, and that empowerment lies in solidarity and compassion.
I’m Clayton Morgareidge for the Old Mole Variety Hour.