“It’s just rhetoric, you know?”
I was sitting in an interview the other morning, making small talk about the vice presidential debate, when this familiar phrase reared its ugly head: just rhetoric.
The art of manipulating the American people has been on display for so long that many of us recognize the game. We’ve realized the so-called arguments trumpeted by both sides in the electoral circus are mere varnish on the decidedly unattractive products they peddle.
In his closing statement, Congressman Paul Ryan channeled the Platonic form of the ideal used car salesman as well as anyone could have ever done. Many of the people with whom I have subsequently discussed the debate perceived that lack of transparency.
Others remarked on the vice president’s clever strategy of laughing and interrupting Ryan’s key points to shore up the Democratic ticket’s perceived doggedness following the President’s lackluster performance in the first debate. Some, myself included, have suggested Obama’s reticence was a calculated strategy — designed to allow Biden, not Obama, to shoulder the lion’s share of blame for injecting negativity into these exercises.
Throughout these debates, what was missing was a sense that these events were emblematic of the true underlying principles held by the speakers. At best they are ex tempore versions of constantly mutating and carefully vetted general sentiments, adjusted for the particular constituency that needs to be targeted that week.
Thus, the GOP pretends “Romneycare” never happened and Democratic stalwarts assert that their guy has always been a fervent supporter of gays and immigrants. Any counter-narrative is propaganda peddled by the enemies of Freedom! Forget what the party line or platform was yesterday, pay attention to the new one.
At worst, these “debates” consist of completely scripted monologues grafted onto any question with the slightest hint of topicality or relevance. A question about Libya gets you a well-rehearsed answer about Iran, Afghanistan and all of foreign policy in just two minutes. What a great value for your time, dear viewer! And don’t get me started on those paragons of pernicious sophistry, the god-awful zingers.
Everyone knows speeches and debates rarely advance truly innovative or thoroughly justified and explained policy. Positions are carefully tested by focus groups and the wording of any proposal remains deliberately vague. We are left with meaningless statements such as Ryan’s on foreign policy, indicating that his ticket stands for peace, democracy and individual rights. These, of course, are values unique to his platform. Personally, I’m a vicious autocrat with lucrative connections to sinister war profiteers, so I’m glad Ryan is so open about what he stands for so I can vote for the other side.
It’s just rhetoric, and we all know it. But is there a harm? The American people get a spectacle, because let’s face it, quips about Big Bird and the like are great fodder for comedy shows. The four dozen cavemen we call undecided voters in swing counties come no closer to a decision. Political scientists tell us the debates don’t really alter electoral results. So does any of it matter?
We have to remember the broader audience for our American political tragicomedy. The world is watching and taking note, and unlike American voters, it has a very different stake in the outcome of the race. When we hear Romney articulate the position that Russia is the greatest geopolitical threat to the U.S., American voters roll their eyes. Just rhetoric. We know that.
But imagine you are Vladimir Putin. Or better yet, imagine you are the average 20-year-old Russian. Do you understand the intricacies of the Electoral College and the need to appeal to prejudiced, low-information voters? Or do you take these things at face value, fearing the fact that one of the major political parties of the most powerful country on the planet, led by a man who would have access to a nuclear arsenal capable of ending the world many times over, has singled out you and your countrymen as the enemy? Is it any surprise that anti-American sentiment runs high, poisoning the minds of future leaders there?
It’s not for nothing that words are mightier than swords. Just rhetoric? Not so much.
Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.