Column: Both Parties Play On Public Assumptions To Subtly Influence Voters

This story was written by Erica F. Rogers, Daily Nebraskan


The McCain-Palin team, that dynamic duo I refer to as McPain, used savvy rhetorical strategies while campaigning Monday. My personal favorite: Palin's reference to the Democratic ticket as "Obama-Biden Democrats."

What's the big deal with that?

Well, if you're an armchair rhetorician, you might look at that and compare it to other tactics those pushing the Republican agenda have used this entire election cycle. The move to connect Barack Obama with Osama bin Laden, with Muslim radicalism and terrorism, has been ongoing. One of the ways the Republicans are doing this is by stroking the tropes -- word associations and phrases -- the public fears most and knows best.

In a fundraising e-mail sent Monday to her constituency, Palin, who's now serving the Republican ticket like a good housewife (economically speaking), wrote: "Friends, in the course of a few weeks, the Obama-Biden Democrats have launched attack after attack on me, my family and John McCain. They're desperate to win and they'll no doubt launch these attacks against other reformers on our ticket."

Before you accuse me of reading too much into her words, just play what writing theorist Peter Elbow calls "The Believing Game" and entertain the possibility that phrases like "launched attack" and "launch attacks," coupled with Obama-Biden are very similar to language used by the Bush administration while referring to attacks launched by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida. There are tropes at work, language combinations we see so often we hardly stop to really read because we can take our own mental short-cuts. Those tropes rely on the associations the reader/viewer makes more than what the writer/speaker articulates.

In other words, Palin and her ilk use language shortcuts that imply commonly held understandings without actually mentioning those meanings directly, even when those common understandings are false, rumor or innuendo. Palin is very good at letting her audiences draw the conclusions. It's an awesome strategy that makes room for candidates to claim, "I never said that."

Republicans have been stroking their tropes with righteous verve with the courtesy lube of journalists who, ahem, assist their handiwork.

A great example: On April 14, Dean Singleton, now the Associated Press board chair, questioned Obama during the AP's annual luncheon, asking, "Can you imagine shifting a substantial number of Afghanistan -- a substantial number to Afghanistan where the Taliban has been gaining strength and Obama Bin Laden is still at large?"

Obama quickly corrected Singleton, who then replied, "If I did that, I'm so sorry." Sure, that looks like an apology, unless you do a quick rhetorical analysis and your beady little eyes fixate on the phrase "If I did that." What kind of apology is that? One that doesn't admit anything and yet still manages to seem sincere -- that's rhetorical stratagem in action, folks.

It's difficult to believe that Singleton, an experienced newspaper executive, could make such a slip. That very day, according to Directorship, an online magazine for people who follow board appointments of major corporations, Singleton and Rupert Murdoch -- the staunch Republican media baron who owns the largest share of global media -- were appointed to serve on the Associated Press board together (the BFFs of the AP).

Murdoch has strong ties to the Bush administration and to Republicans. In the fall of 2003, according to The New York Times, Murdoch, with White House backing, appealed to Congress to lift a proposed television market ownership limit from 35 to 39 percent -- exactly how much market share Murdoch owned at the time. Even Trent Lott (R-Miss.) agreed to the compromise with a little nudging fro the administration.

I've long ago given up my nave assumption that media is objective and nonpartisan. Most of the mainstream products we encounter are either Murdoch Republican or Ted Turner Democrat. This isn't sneaky conspiracy stuff. In no way do I mean to imply that it is. Business and rhetorical strategies -- the very power embedded in language and culture -- are the lifeblood of politics. Unfortunately, too few of us -- the rabble of average citizens caught in the crossfire of this presidential election -- take time to question the language and its many meanings because so much of what we hear and read seems like common sense.

Democrats are doing it, too. Voting for Obama is marketed as voting for change (and hippie-hugging Democrats love change, personal growth, opportunities, yogurt and granola). Appealing for change to a Democrat audience is appealing to pathos -- emotions -- and it's powerful, particularly because there are many who feel as if the last eight years sucked their souls dry.

People are hungry for affordable gas, for an end to the housing crisis and to some hope that there's an exit strategy that will get us out of Iraq. So the Dems ask us to "Vote for Change" because, geez, anything would be an improvement. But that strategy comes with its own set of tropes, leaving its audiences to envision change as they see it instead of how Obama calls it -- this too, is masterful (and problematic).

So the rhetorical question to ponder becomes, "How is your party using your assumptions to further its goals, and what's the big deal with that?"

The answer, of course, is up to you.
  • CBSNews

Comments