The Norms of Political Rhetoric

Here are two observations made in Thomas Edsall’s column in the New York Times today.  I think the two comments belong in different contexts, but I am going to join them today, because I think they also mean more together.

Here’s the first.  The context is collecting votes and winning elections.

Schaffner, MacWilliams and Nteta put the case well:

There is reason to think that Trump’s strategy of using explicitly racist and sexist appeals to win over white voters may be followed by candidates in future elections,” they write. “There is no longer a price to be paid by politicians who make such explicit appeals. [bold font added]  

And this is what they mean by “a price to be paid.”

Explicit racist and sexist appeals appeared to cost Trump some votes from more educated whites, but it may have won him even more support among whites with less education.

That seems pretty clear.  Among the Republican electorate, at least, building heat under racist and/or sexist positions will get you more votes than it loses you.  And that might be true among the general electorate, too, depending on how you define “sexism” and how you measure it. [1]

But there is another piece to this argument which can be seen as part of the electoral gamble, as above, or as a challenge to Americans generally, which is the way I want to look at it.  In this second section, they (Schaffner, MacWilliams and Nteta, op cit.) say that Republicans might just as well follow the strategy the Trump campaign relied on in 2016 and they give this reason;

.”…the norms governing political rhetoric appear to have largely been shattered in 2016,

I’d like to look at that by itself, not just as a part of the political calculus.  I’m going to say that the “norms governing political rhetoric” can be phrased positively or negatively.  Positively, a candidate would be required to refer to his opponent, to the opposing political party, and especially to the head of the opposing ticket, in collegial terms.

rhetoric 3The often parodied language of the U. S. Senate can be drawn upon here just to illustrate the idea.  “I rise in opposition to the motion of my honored colleague, the Senator from Mississippi…”  Senate speech is bound by the norms of formality in ways that campaign speech is not, of course, but a positive notion of “the norms governing political rhetoric” could be understood to require generous and inclusive language toward one’s opponent.  All the while, of course, arguing that he is inexperienced (or superannuated) and the true representative of a locally important industry (or in the pay of corporate elites).  This quotation attributed to Socrates may not be true anymore.

The negative notion of rhetorical norms is probably more directly applicable.  There are things that you just didn’t say about your opponent, at least not in public, at least not in ways that could be tracked back to the candidate.  There are serious derogations. My opponent is a communist, a fascist, is unAmerican and so on.  Then there are the joking derogations.  Candidate Donald Trump used to refer to Sen Warren as “Pocahontas,” to highlight her claim to Indian heritage.  The goal was not to charge her with something, but to offer her as an appropriate object of ridicule.

Between the serious and the jocular, there is another category that might be called “character slurs.”  My opponent is a sexist, a crook, a slanderer, a sexual pervert, a hoity toity elite, a person unduly responsive to citizens of African descent.  I know that last phrase is cumbersome, but it will be widely recognized as a way of “not-saying” another charge “N—lover” which cannot be said any more in public even by conservatives.

So that is how I understand the idea of “rhetorical norms.”  When Schaffner, rhetoric 34MacWilliams and Nteta argue that there is not really a price to be paid for using such language in campaigning.  They are talking about us—the American electorate.  They are saying that we will listen to such things being said and will not object in any way that would serve as a warning to the candidate that he or she has gone too far.

It is difficult even for me to imagine that someone would go to a campaign rally and stand up to object to the undue derogation of an opponent by the speaker.  If it was done as part of a Q & A afterwards, the candidate would deny it and the crowd would boo the questioner.  You could write a letter to the candidates office, of course, but it would be weighed (that is not only a metaphor) against the other letters and texts that praise such language.

If we are really no longer offended by these slurs—especially the racist and sexist slurs which are the subject of this column—then there is really nothing to do.  The norms have, in fact changed and not only in the old calculus of how many votes to I get v. how many I lose for going racist.   It will have changed in the fundamental sense that voters no longer object to the use of such language.

Is that true, I wonder.

There are more important things to say about a candidate than that he meets the positive obligations of public speech (my honored colleague) and the negative constraints (no more “Pocahontas”).  It would be nice to vote for someone who has ideas about public policies that would help us pursue our goals and help solve our problems.  As a voter, I would rather vote for such a person no matter how foul-mouthed he or she is toward an opponent.  

But look at it from the other side.  Just as car manufacturers go to great lengths to shave off ounces of unprofitable chassis, so politicians are extremely sensitive to unnecessarily losing votes.  There are enough close elections in the U. S. that giving away votes you could otherwise have had is just stupid.  It is said that the whole electoral college would have been flipped by the change of only 80,000 votes in 2016. [2]

Using language that will cost you votes is just stupid.  Now the case that the researchers cited in this Edsall column are making is that under some circumstances, you will gain more votes than you lose by using racist or sexist language and in those races, anything a candidate can do to put race and sex at the center of the campaign will be of help.  It can be offensive and it only works better because both the people who like it and the people who hate it are helping you keep it at the center of the campaign.

rhetoric 2Some people will say that this can be addressed by organizations of likeminded people.  What politicians really care about, they will say, are money, votes, and endorsements.  This points, in this argument, to groups that will advocate the withholding of funds from those who “violate the norms governing political rhetoric.”  Or put pressure on public officials who would otherwise endorse them.  Or urge people to vote against them because they have broken the norms.

I am not a fan of such arguments because those organizations can be so easily walled off from the political world and because they may cause a counter-reaction.  But the really fundamental question is whether we really care any more.

When candidate George H. W. Bush, in looking toward the debate with Geraldine Ferraro, said that he was “going to kick a little ass,” he was only trying to look macho—always a challenge for him. [3]   But when candidate Donald Trump said about Hillary that, “she got schlonged” by Barack Obama, he is inviting a sexism that would never have occurred to G H W Bush and that he would have rejected has it occurred to him.

Do we really not care?  Is the public disapproval which is the only guarantee of the effectiveness of “the norms of political rhetoric” tolerant now of such language?  Does it work for all the conservative candidates in the way that the accusations of hate work for the liberal candidates?  Or does it just work for Trump?  

That’s what I hope.  And I hope it won’t work again.

[1]  Especially if you are using the “Ambivalent Sexism Scale” which is built to find sexist attitudes in people who are trying hard not to have them.

[2]  And I have treasured for many years now the joke that George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000 by a single vote.

[3]  I wondered, even at the time, if Ferraro could not have taken the “ass” reference very literally, have taken it as a compliment, and said that keeping it little has been one of the challenges of the campaign.  It would have accused Bush of making a vulgar remark, which he did not, and might have made him look silly for his posturing.  But no responsible Democrat asked me for my views.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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