Barack Obama’s health care reform took a brutal blow in the lower chamber last week, when a bipartisan majority voted to repeal the legislation. You may not have noticed, as there was little rhetoric or debate on the airwaves, and the “new civility” following the Tucson tragedy has taken hold of our political discourse.
As an American, I can condone a call for bipartisan respect. But as a writer, I must warn: Beware this new civility. Behind it is a deeper notion that we must regulate our words out of fear.
Famous linguist George Orwell once wrote in 1946 about the “struggle against the abuse of language.” However, verbal poison was not the abuse he was referring to. Rather, Orwell lamented the sad state of our discourse’s inability to provoke serious thought, handicapping itself by using dead metaphors and polite, intricate language that only numbs thinking.
While we can all agree that it would be refreshing if our politics were a bit more pleasant, partisan rhetoric has a necessary place in our politics.
America is in the middle of a political crossroads, and there is much passion and energy on both sides when so much is at stake. Vivid imagery and words help put political ideas into perspective, and give our minds the ability to comprehend politics. Politics in many ways is conflict, and thus conflict-related metaphors have been popular in our political lexicon.
For example, it’s not called the “Parade Against Poverty,” but the “War on Poverty,” because war is a universally understood concept that helps us conceptualize the situation. Other examples: candidates amass “war chests,” and politicians who hold unpopular positions might have “targets on their backs.”
There is a point to be made that intense rhetoric can lead to heated tempers, or offensive speech. But I would be even more alarmed if our political discourse was stoic and rigid. Besides, this idea that our politics are only now suddenly hyper-partisan is silly. As early as 1796, George Washington urged the country not to create political parties because they would lead to harsh rhetoric, and the early 1820s were known as the Era of Good Feelings because political parties temporarily ceased to exist. Orwell said in the 1940s that, “politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.”
It is not partisanship that is ailing our country, although that is a symptom of the bigger problem. Our country is at an ideological, once-in-a-generation crossroads, with mutually incompatible visions for our future. Look back at other eras where the country experienced great political change – the 1960s, the years before the Civil War, the Revolution – and the rhetoric and partisanship appears similar. We need a tense and vibrant political discourse to help us understand these issues, and what’s at stake.
There are several things that could be fixed. Some on the far right and left should not broadcast jokes about the deaths of political figures, not so much because their wish might come true, but because it’s simply distasteful and crass. Presidents, when inaugurated, should focus on governing and cease their never-ending campaigns, at least for a bit, instead of looking toward the next election.
Someday in our near future, we may have our own Era of Good Feelings, when political parties are no longer necessary and everyone seems to agree. But for now, don’t believe that the solution to our tense political climate is to stop using rhetoric altogether – that line of thought is a one-way ticket to a dull mind and a meaningless discourse that only erodes the democracy it is trying to protect.
Andrew Clark, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.