Does Political Rhetoric Matter?

Kevin Drum has an addendum to my post about the rhetoric of the “fiscal cliff,” which I think is mostly correct. (As a reminder, I was arguing that liberals should try to be more rhetorically coherent, better to drive out nonsense like “fiscal cliff,” which is horribly misleading.) Jonathan Bernstein, meanwhile, in his once-yearly tradition of being correct about most things but wrong when he pays attention to me, has a much more radical proposition. Word choice matters not at all, he says:

Beyond that, the really important point is that in almost every case, what we call this stuff matters a whole lot less than people think, and probably not at all…

At any rate, my view is that there’s basically no evidence that it would make any difference at all that whether we call all of this the “fiscal cliff” or something more accurate. Similarly, pick an issue: it almost certainly didn’t matter that people came to call the recent health care reforms “Obamacare,” or that people called certain taxes a “death tax.”

Like how algebraic variables can represent any number, in this view words are merely containers with no shape or agency whatsoever; they are defined by reality and common usage, not by the intent of the propagandist. Put that way, it sounds silly, but I actually have a lot of sympathy for that view. The eternal prescriptive-descriptive grammar debate falls largely around these axes, and the descriptivists clearly win overall (which is to say that there is no wrong way to speak, only varying usage patterns—Ebonics is every bit as legitimate as Newcasterese). This is why linguists get so peeved by self-anointed grammar Nazis who toddle around scrawling on movie posters and shaming those that don’t use who and whom “properly.”

Here’s an example of how this works over the long run:

And in the long run, I have to agree. Reality will win out every time. Abject propaganda like “collateral damage” becomes only more horrifying in its failure to hide reality (not to mention the grim image of a bunch of dead-eyed Pentagon PR flacks who come up with that stuff). But when it comes to the short term, especially during some high-stakes negotiations, I can’t embrace the strong version of Bernstein’s proposition.

When some political compromise is being hammered out a lot of things are interacting. The background culture and history shapes the space of things that are discussed and thought possible. Rich people, businesses, and pressure groups work the lobbying channels. Occasionally, mass uprisings can capture the discussion. Finally, elites provide coordination through signaling. Matt Yglesias had a great post on the latter awhile back:

In countries like the US and Australia where right-wing political elites are skeptical about global warming, you see the right-left split on climate science grow bigger as people pay more attention to politics. It looks very different in Germany. Well-informed voters are well informed about their ideological camp’s position, not well-informed about the issues. And in the United States, a conservative voter who takes the climate issue seriously probably isn’t a well-informed person who sees through Tom Coburn’s cant, he’s someone who’s so ill-informed that he’s not familiar with Coburn’s cant.

This is where lousy slogans can really have an effect. Economics is a tricky subject, and the intuitive appeal of Hooverite austerity policy is strong indeed. All across the developed world even lefty parties have embraced austerity, even at the cost of their own electoral success.

And the left’s failure to unite around a common frame for the fiscal cliff really has weakened the left’s elite signaling. Take the Daily Show. Stewart’s stuff on the fiscal cliff has been weak, and he got badly rolled by Alan Simpson. Stewart is probably the most widely respected person among the lefty media, and his personal specialty is cutting through Washington BS and hypocrisy to reach underlying truth. The people complaining most about the fiscal cliff, foremost among them Alan Simpson, are the biggest BSing hypocrites in Washington, and that’s saying something. If even Stewart can’t manage to shovel all the way down to what’s actually happening, it’s a major failure of the lefty wonk-to-elite idea transmission mechanism. Good slogans are an important way to coordinate and give people fingerholds on complex ideas.

Again, I agree with Kevin, good slogans are tough to come by and maintain. But to say it would make no difference at all if we called it the “fiscal cheesy poof” is a step too far.

[Cross-posted from The Orbital.]


Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is currently the Washington correspondent for The Week.