Election Talk 2: civic duty as public discourse

by Molly C

We made it past the three-ring circus that kicked off the Republican primaries.  Now, as the remaining candidates get closer to taking Obama head on, it’s getting ugly and we don’t have Bachmann for comic relief.  The remaining candidates are serious, and so are their supporters.  And so are the Super PACs who will flood the public discourse with the shitstorm of advertising and infotainment that will hammer down on us for the next nine months.  Steven Colbert has been doing excellent work getting us to think about this.  He argues here: If campaign contributions directly reflected election results, this year’s will be decided by 22 billionaires (that is, 22 individual donors who make up over 50% of money spent).  Following Colbert’s logic, the decision is not made by the vote but by owning the means of public discourse.  Even if you recognize this is not direct disenfranchisement (though the Republicans are doing that, too), it is fair to call it an undue influence.  In these proportions (over 50%!), these are not just injections of cash and a bit of trash-talking.

It structures the debate.  Whatever words we use to talk about the elections have traces of this money in them.

The left is talking about this.  But what does it mean to take it seriously?  One thought: it doesn’t make sense to start bickering about our feelings for Obama.  Not already!  We are going to be talking about this for the rest of the year, and we won’t touch a ballot-box until November.  Meanwhile, our national public discourse is in a state of crisis.  It’s not time to soapbox for or against Obama, whether to demonize his critics as traitorous or his supporters as brainwashed.  I don’t mean, “put aside our differences [and eventually support him]”.

I mean let’s focus on having better conversations about what’s actually going on:

  • what’s possible to say and what isn’t;
  • who is being heard and who isn’t;
  • what histories are being invoked or ignored;
  • what emotions are being stoked;
  • what narratives are being standardized;
  • etc.

At the end of the day, the Super PACs must be satisfied no matter who wins the election, once they’ve set the terms of the policy debate for the term to come.  Whether it’s unleashing Newt or tethering Obama, the range of political action possible for the President are being laid out now.  While I am holding out on the possibility of a mass movement re-surging in the Spring that could make waves, pro/anti-Obama debating won’t get that movement as far as canny and sustained analysis.

Whether it’s drawing out blindspots on foreign policy or following the insider trading of information, private contracts, and Congressional voting records — we need to do it.  Obama is one guy.  He is a public official who must be held accountable; but he is still only one guy.  There are unprecedented online and independent media options to follow this depth of analysis.

But alongside political analysis, there’s also pragmatic discourse analysis, of listening critically to how popular opinion is reported on and portrayed.  It doesn’t take an academic to see how commentators shape political moods by describing them.  Understanding this process doesn’t only equip us for November but helps us get into the work of framing of the debate.

The Right knows this better than the Left.  (See further: For a straightforward account of “Conservative Speak,” see the Prospect; for more ambitious readers, there’s of course David Harvey’s The Postmodern Condition, but also Jodi Dean‘s excellent Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, which shows how the Left actually revels in its own defeat and enjoys its cynical-but-impotent criticisms, because it has capitulated to neoliberalism and is trapped in its frame.)  (Oh yeah: and Steven Colbert’s crazy-amazing work with Frank Luntz, conservative messaging extraordinaire.)

Up next: What would Nixon do?  Tricky Dick and the politics of resentment — lessons and legacies