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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Wednesday, June 25, 2003


Bush vs Dean, or empty rhetoric vs substance

posted by annatopia at Wednesday, June 25, 2003 permalink View blog reactions
In this Nation article, clinical psychologist Dr Renana Brooks analyzes Bush's use of emotional language as a political tool. She's meticulously poured through Bush's speeches and has outlined a few techniques that Bush successfully employs. This article is extemely interesting, as it exposes Bush's language for what it is:

President Bush, like many dominant personality types, uses dependency-creating language. He employs language of contempt and intimidation to shame others into submission and desperate admiration. While we tend to think of the dominator as using physical force, in fact most dominators use verbal abuse to control others.

I'd like to contrast Bush's techniques with some text from Dean's Great American Restoration speech.

The first technique Brooks analyzes is the use of empty language. Empty language is the use of broad and abstract statements that contain so little substance that the listener is distracted and unable to examine the content of the rhetoric. Empty language is used to attribute negative connotations to other ideas, to conceal faulty logic, and reframe an arguement. She cites a few examples from Bush's SOTU speech earlier this year. One example of Bush's empty rhetoric regarding taxes is, "The best and fairest way to make sure Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place."

While this sentence may contain an emotional appeal, the phrase doesn't mean anything. It simply states the obvious: we'd all like lower taxes. Okay - and??? Contrast this with Dean's statement on taxes in his speech: "Companies are leaving the country to avoid paying taxes, or to avoid paying people livable wages. And corporations are doing this with the support of the government and a political process in Washington that they rent -- if not own." Dean clearly states that there's a serious problem with our tax code: companies are incorporating offshore to avoid paying income taxes and our government is explicitly supporting it. This is more specific than the ambiguous language used by Bush.

Bush also uses a technique (that he probably learned in all those business speech classes at Yale) called personalisation. This is used to focus the listener's attention on the speaker's personality. While this isn't always a bad thing, it's terrible when employed as a distraction. Bush uses it to project an image that he'll solve all our problems. "I will not forget this wound to our country or those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people." This also allows the listener to abdicate responsiblity for a problem to the speaker. Contrast this with Howard Dean, who firmly states that, "The great lie spoken by politicians on platforms like this is the cry of 'elect me and I will solve all your problems'. The truth is the future of our nation rests in your hands, and not in mine."

Brooks also hilights Bush's use of repetition, which I'm sure you're all familiar with. "Repeat it until everyone believes it."

In an article in the January 16 New York Review of Books, Joan Didion highlighted Bush's high degree of personalization and contempt for argumentation in presenting his case for going to war in Iraq. As Didion writes: 'I made up my mind,' he had said in April, 'that Saddam needs to go.' This was one of many curious, almost petulant statements offered in lieu of actually presenting a case. I've made up my mind, I've said in speech after speech, I've made myself clear. The repeated statements became their own reason."

Brooks saves the best for last, as she explains why the public is succeptible to Bush's lies due to his proficiency in employing empty rhetoric and personalisation:

To create a dependency dynamic between him and the electorate, Bush describes the nation as being in a perpetual state of crisis and then attempts to convince the electorate that it is powerless and that he is the only one with the strength to deal with it. He attempts to persuade people they must transfer power to him, thus crushing the power of the citizen, the Congress, the Democratic Party, even constitutional liberties, to concentrate all power in the imperial presidency and the Republican Party.

It's called negative framework. I call it the language of fear, and it's backed up by other actions, such as the "terror alert system". In his speech of 9/20/01, Bush chose to scare the bejesus out of all of us, rather than sooth our fears and alleviate our concerns. "Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have ever seen." An in a policy speech from October of 2002, he stated, "Some ask how urgent this danger is to America and the world. The danger is already significant, and it only grows worse with time.... Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual terrorists." He implies that this is a neverending crisis which we the people are powerless against. He insinuates that we must entrust him to protect us, rather than empowering us to protect ourselves.

Contrast this with this snippet from Dean's speech: "Abraham Lincoln said that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this earth. But this President has forgotten ordinary people. You have the power to reclaim our nation’s destiny. You have the power to rid Washington of the politics of money. You have the power to make right as important as might. You have the power to give Americans a reason to vote again. You have the power to restore our nation to fiscal sanity and bring jobs back to our people. You have the power to fulfill Harry Truman’s dream and bring health insurance to every American. You have the power to give us a foreign policy consistent with American values again." If that's not empowering, then I'll eat this web page.

Brooks concludes that the way to break through to the electorate is to employ a positive vision for America:

Bush's political opponents are caught in a fantasy that they can win against him simply by proving the superiority of their ideas. However, people do not support Bush for the power of his ideas, but out of the despair and desperation in their hearts. Whenever people are in the grip of a desperate dependency, they won't respond to rational criticisms of the people they are dependent on. They will respond to plausible and forceful statements and alternatives that put the American electorate back in touch with their core optimism. Bush's opponents must combat his dark imagery with hope and restore American vigor and optimism in the coming years.

With this in mind, the theme of a "great American restoration" is certainly positive. Some choice quotes:

"If September 11, 2001 taught America anything it is that we are stronger when we are beholden to each other as a national community, and weaker when we act only as individuals. That tragedy gave us an enormous opportunity to focus not only on our common peril, but also on our common dreams. The peril remains, but the dreams must be resurrected -- and they will be in a new American century."

And finally: "This campaign is about more than issue differences on health care, tax cuts, national security, jobs, the environment and our economy. It is about something as important as our children. It’s about who we are as Americans.

Here are the words of John Winthrop: 'We shall be as one. We must delight in each other, make other’s conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always living before our eyes our Commission and Community in our work.' It is that ideal, the ideal of the American community, that we seek to restore."


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.