What a week in American political theater. Not one, but two debates, and following on some sharp-tongued criticism of the CNBC moderators of a few weeks ago. I always come to these debates a few days late, since I can’t be asked to stay up into the small hours of the morning in England. What this means is that I end up seeing the listicles first: “5 Takeaways from the [Party] Debate.” “Top 10 Outrageous Things [Party members] Said.” “7 Craziest Moments from Last Night’s Debate.”
Most of these ‘tops’ are moments of aggression, when the candidates are clearest and pithiest in attacking each other, the moderators, the other party, other countries, cultural groups, or anything else that comes to mind. From reading the books, I’m no stranger to the idea. In these memoirs, the political insult is often some of the most vivid and well-turned language in the books. Jeb Bush, otherwise quite mild-mannered, has one of my favorite lines yet: “This combination of ideological rancor, demagoguery, and political cowardice is lethal, with the result that we remain saddled with an immigration regime that nearly everyone agrees is profoundly dysfunctional” (6). As I’ve already mentioned elsewhere, Scott Walker calls his predecessor, Governor Doyle, a ‘profligate’ ‘gambler’ and, by extension, a pig. Clinton offers up frank opinions of everyone from foreign leaders to people in the Bush administration: for example, expressing her surprise at “how many people in Washington operated in an “evidence-free zone,” where data and science were disregarded” (570). Carson attacks the “America haters” (71) and creates “secular progressive” as an insult in itself. Huckabee’s lurid exposition on why sexualized female pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Beyonce are ruining America is borderline pornographic in itself (34-39). Giving enough examples would mean copying out whole books.
The point here, I would argue, is not necessarily the insult, but the demonstration of decisiveness. What these pithy phrases are really about is performing leadership, performing the ability to size up a situation, phenomenon, or person at a moment’s notice and immediately come to a sharp, articulate opinion. The way these frank assessments are often phrased also revolves around (as I’ve mentioned before) the idea of political courage. The idea is that candidates have the guts to say what the silent majority is thinking, but won’t say. For example, Mike Huckabee:
“Let’s face it, diversity is “code” for uniformity. The goal of the PC police and the zealots on the extreme left is to eliminate any voice that is diverse and to insist on compliance and acceptance of the words, definitions, actions, and attitudes that they have crafted around their own lifestyles and beliefs” (45).
Or Hillary Clinton:
““Let me ask you something,” I said. “Al Qaeda has had safe haven in Pakistan since 2002. I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to… The world has an interest in seeing the capture and killing of the people who are the masterminds of this terrorist syndicate, but so far as we know, they’re in Pakistan.”[…] “For a moment the room was completely silent. I had just said what every American official believed to be true but never uttered out loud” (186-7).
Not only does the candidate demonstrate their decisiveness, but also their ‘courage’ to communicate it. This sounds familiar. Where have we heard this before? “People are also excited when they see one of their fellow citizens unintimidated by political correctness and unafraid to express his opinions.”
That’s it. Ben Carson.
“Although I thought the speech was good—the audience response was overwhelming, I had no idea that it would go viral and that literally millions of people would be talking about it over the next few days. This reaction was a reflection of the fact that the American people are excited to know that they are not the only ones who value common sense. People are also excited when they see one of their fellow citizens unintimidated by political correctness and unafraid to express his opinions” (xxv).
And then also Bernie Sanders, almost indistinguishable:
“The very strong response to my speech tells me that there is a hunger all over America for a discussion about economic truths, for a counterattack on the ferocious assaults that are taking place against working families, and for a practical plan on how we can reverse the obscene politics that favor the rich over the middle class and the disadvantaged in our nation” (xiii-xiv).
Rand Paul joins these two with his own filibuster:
“From those tweets I discovered that I wasn’t alone, that the Bill of Rights was not a lost cause, and that millions of Americans—Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—were excited to have someone stand up for the right of every American of whatever origin, black or brown, Arab or Jew or Christian, to be tried by a jury of his or her peers. To the surprise of official Washington, the Twitterverse exploded in agreement… there had been something like a million tweets with the hashtag #StandWithRand” (7-8).
These are the obvious, uncannily similar ones, but almost every candidate has something similar: a piece of self-quotation and a gesture toward the public response. For example, Hillary Clinton tells the story of the 2010 Pride celebration at the State department.
““These dangers are not gay issues—this is a human rights issue,” I said. The room burst into whoops and cheers. I went on: “Just as I was very proud to say the obvious more than fifteen years ago in Beijing, that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, let me say today that human rights are gay rights and gay rights are human rights, once and for all.” Again loud, sustained applause. Of course, I had hoped that my remarks would be well received, but I was surprised by the passionate reaction from the crowd. Clearly this was something people had been waiting to hear even more fervently than I had realized. Later Dan Baer, an active member of GLIFAA, confirmed this. “You need to say this to the world,” he told me” (578-579).
This is why I don’t like listicles, even though I do appreciate that they make my debate catch-up easier. We start from the most attention-grabbing, pithy phrases and quick assessments. We assume that those are informed opinions and demonstrate command of a situation. We take the outrageousness of those statements as a sign that the candidate is willing to speak truth to power. We take the attention that these receive, and the emotional responses they are calculated to elicit, as sign of grassroots support.
Hidden in the last line of the Clinton quote above is the tension that makes all this seem like a cynical performance: “you need to say this to the world” is about a candidate speaking genuine truth to power, saying what needs to be said even though it may be unpopular. “People had been waiting to hear this” speaks to pandering to the crowd. Conflating the two may be good for the candidate, but bad for politics.