Monday, October 22, 2012

The End Of The Rhetoric

No, it's not here just yet, as ardently as we might wish for it. Yes, tonight's face-off between the presidential candidates, supposedly over foreign policy, is the last of the series for this campaign. But until November 6 is behind us, there will be endless pronouncements over it, over the candidates themselves, over their policy prescriptions, and over anything and everything else one could plausibly style politically relevant...because this, after all, is "the most important election in our lifetimes."

Maybe it is. After all, my lifetime's not over yet, so how am I to know? All the same, the nation's more prominent commentators and prognosticators eat very well during presidential campaigns, even though their alignments are easily predictable and they seldom say anything much different from the last time around on the quadrennial carousel. It can make a man wonder whether he entered the wrong year out of four, at least.

To most Americans, it's really tiresome. In these days of the "permanent campaign," it gets tiresome enough for most of us to tune it out long before the election itself. But those who bloviate for bucks regard it as the meat and mead of life. Tastes do vary.

One of the aspects of continuous political rhetoric that's become massively noticeable is the mind-numbing repetition of certain key words and phrases. Some of those phrases have become so monotonous that they've been embedded in the rules of popular drinking games. ("Fair share," anyone?) Others have attained the status of membership badges: use it and you automatically designate yourself as an allegiant of a particular party or ideology. Thomas Sowell made note of several of the latter in his book The Vision Of The Anointed, which is indispensable to anyone who yearns to understand the stubborn ineducability of the left-liberal.

Today's sample thereof comes to us courtesy of columnist Star Parker:

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in its recent endorsement of McCaskill, "Todd Akin…comes out of the new incarnation of the Missouri Republican Party, the one based on peddling simplistic solutions to fearful "values voters."

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that for the years 2006 through 2010, 26 percent of the population of St. Louis, which is almost half black, lived below the poverty line.

It doesn't seem to phase the Post-Dispatch that poverty in their own city persists at levels 60 percent above the national rate. They are more concerned about a conservative getting elected, who might actually try to do things differently.

Whereas insanity is doing the same things and expecting different results, doing things differently – like freeing up poor parents to send their kids to church schools and promoting politically incorrect traditional values – is for liberals and the Post-Dispatch editors simplistic.

"Simplistic" is a flip dismissal of a policy prescription one would rather not have to argue against. The most important questions about a policy proposal:

  • Has it been tried before?
  • If not, what evidence and reasoning supports it?
  • If so, did it work as expected then? What were the costs and unforeseen consequences?

...focus on results. Whether the proposal is simple (by whatever standard) or complex (by whatever standard) is brushed aside in favor of whether it will work and at what cost. But the reverse of that coin-of-the-policy-realm is a similar analysis of the policy that brought about the problem to be solved (if any):

  • Why did it fail?
  • What evidence that it would fail did we overlook?
  • What aspect of the reasoning used to promote it was faulty?

These are questions the promoters of political snake oil would prefer that we not ask. They'd move heaven and earth to prevent them from being asked about the most visible, bloody, and expensive policy failures of the past century...were anyone actually asking them.

Political rhetoric exists because there exist customers for it: political candidates. Such candidates, including the very best of them, are essentially salesmen for constellations of policies advocated by the parties and groups that support them. This follows from an old axiom about human desire:

The specific thing Smith is pursuing is what Smith really wants.

Therefore, a candidate for public office wants that office and its powers, not the "good he could do with it." Perhaps he'd use those powers to good effect, and perhaps he wouldn't, but we must assume that the office, not his projected activities therein, is his true desire. From there it follows that his policy proposals, like his promises to various voting blocs and interest groups, are principally means to an end -- and from there it follows that he'd never have articulated them, or the catchphrases with which he promotes them, if he thought they might cost him the election.

All political rhetoric must be viewed in this light, whether or not one approves of the people employing it or the policies they espouse.

And so we come to the end of yet another interminable screed about the innate tawdriness of the political process in our time, only to realize that it's a wordy restatement of an old quip:

Q: How do you know when a politician is lying?
A: His lips are moving.

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