Politics & Popular Discourse

Written on February 29, 2008 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in International Relations

Rolf Strom-Olsen

I very much enjoyed reading Miguel’s excellent post this week, all the more so since here in North America we are bombarded constantly by the ongoing campaign for the Democratic nomination between Hillary and Obama. So apologies to Miguel for riding on his coat-tails, but I am going to talk elections.

Miguel observes that "exceptions [to classical rhetorical debate structures] are the absolute rule when the candidate knows that the cameras are filming him [and her!] for the CNN daily news." Interestingly, Barack Obama gave a speech after winning the last round of primaries (notably Wisconsin) to a large – as in twenty-thousand large – gathering of the faithful in Texas. Having been criticised by opponents and pundits alike for delivering little more than honey-tongued  pablum, Obama took to the podium and to the airwaves and delivered a speech that was full of the kind of exordium – narratio – refutatio – argumentatio – peroratio of the pre-soundbite campaign reality. Well, I am not sure how much exordium there was, but it was heavy on the narratio and peroratio. He detailed this on healthcare and that on education and some other stuff about jobs and I can’t remember what about taxes, and something about foreign policy, oh and Iraq, and on and on and on and when it was all over the substantive speech crammed full of nutritious and detailed policy declamations was almost universally criticised for being … dull. As in Finnegan’s Wake or Waterworld dull.

Even the loyal partisans were visibly flagging by the end, their raucous sign-waving rather less spirited and  their willingness to break into chant noticeably reduced. If you have an hour to kill, you can go watch it here (pt 1) and here (pt 2). The interesting thing about this moment is the extraordinary contrast it provides between what the electorate seems to think it wants (substantive and in-depth discussion of the issues) and what deep down it craves (well-delivered sloganeering and honey-tongued pablum). As it happens, most people seem to prefer the snappy, word soufflé of a spirited Obama performance, heavy on uplifting rhetoric, light on the detail-laden plan of bringing 47 million people into a healthcare system run by a private-public consortium of insurance providers based on a voucher system with provisions for penalties for those who opt out based on an articulated principal of universal …. Forget that! Give us more "Yes we can." (Or as the original went: Si se puede!)

How new is this? I am reminded of Cato’s famous declaration, "Carthago delenda est" which he said again. And again. And again. And again. And in the streets of Pompeii, you can still read the sloganeering graffiti of the election campaign that was cut short by Vesuvian impertinence. "Gaius Gavium Rufum audilem oro vos faciatis Granius rogat" (Gravius asks you to vote Gaius Gavium Rufum for Aedile) reads one typical example – a reminder that personal testaments carried the most credibility for would-be office-holders looking to make good with the voters. Heck – one candidate even had his grandmother vouch for him! Not much about the issues though.

In fact, the election graffiti at Pompeii has long been a source of
fascination, since it suggests that there were some kind of political
campaigns, although as Miguel points out nothing like the modern day
version. Still, it does seem to
be fairly consistently true that the greater the degree of general
participation in something, the lower the discourse. I don’t think
modern media is responsible, Marshall McLuhan’s
"medium is the message" notwithstanding. However, since the average
person has had very little visible role throughout history until the
advent of modern democracy, this dictum is not frequently observed in

The Reformation, however, offers an interesting moment when popular
opinion was an arbiter of events. Alongside the high minded scholastic
disputatios that pitted Zwinglians, Lutherans and Calvinists against
Roman Catholics – and, as good sectarians, each other of course – the
efforts made to appeal to a more general audience were fairly tawdry.
This "Gassenrede" (Gutter speech), as one contemporary report put it,
reduced the high-minded reforming principles articulated by Martin
Luther to more simple formulations: the Whore of Babylon, the Pope as
Antichrist or the Scarlet Woman are some of the more enduring (if not endearing) examples. Indeed, the
Reformers’ campaigns to win over common folks often featured off-colour
verses that rhymed: they are easier to remember and recite. Rude,
sometimes pornographic, images also aided in their efforts to sway people. So when convincing the people that the bible speaks only of two sacraments proves tough, roll out a nasty picture of the pope. It worked in Switzerland.

In the end, popular participation mitigates against nuanced
discussion and debate. And this is not because the great unwashed
remain gloriously uncontaminated by abstract ideas or complex thoughts
but because the greater the mass, the simpler the message. One very
interesting point Miguel raises is the case for a British style of
parliamentary campaigning. But it is worth bearing in mind that through
to the end of the nineteenth century, the audience for British politics
was very small and largely homogeneous. White, male and moneyed – they
shared the same issues and as a result the level of political discourse
could be quite high. Ironically, democratisation is a discouragement to
that kind of sophisticated political engagement and discourse. Exordium – narratio – refutatio – argumentatio – peroratio? No, it seems, we can’t.


No comments yet.

Leave a Comment


We use both our own and third-party cookies to enhance our services and to offer you the content that most suits your preferences by analysing your browsing habits. Your continued use of the site means that you accept these cookies. You may change your settings and obtain more information here. Accept