You know how if you repeat a word long and often enough it begins to become a different word: the sounds break off from each other and thin out and you achieve some sort of altered state in which you can’t even reclaim the original sound of the word or its meaning. (If you don’t know what I’m taking about, try it. Use, say, ketchup.)
That’s more or less what it’s like to watch a political convention.
I started this post in reaction to last night’s convention speeches at the GOP, shocked by what Joe Klein called the lack of “even the slightest wisp of substance.” But to be fair, the Democratic convention was only marginally better. Part of the problem here is sheer mathematics. There is an inverse relationship between the specificity of a statement and the number of people who will agree with it. Millions of people will agree with the statement, “I like music!”, far fewer with the statement “I like Lil Wayne!” and far, far, far fewer with the statement “Mrs. Officer is by far the best track on Tha Carter III!”
So the rhetorical trick that convention speechwriters try to pull off is to have just enough substance within a statement that it seems to carry some semantic force, but remains nearly impossible to disagree with. The result? cant. “Families that work hard and play by the rules” Cant. “We honor his service.” Cant. “The choice is clear.” Cant. “This election isn’t about the past it’s about the future.” Cant, cant, cant.
Even Obama’s quite successful speech, which was widely praised, was shot through with just this sort of thing (“The Americanness of America is that its uniquely, Americanly American”) That said, the Democratic convention and Obama’s speech also had, at the very least, a lot of content within the cant: providing healthcare to all Americans, reversing climate change, and responsibly bringing our troops home from Iraq. Even “tax cuts for middle class families,” has enough semantic substance to perfectly straddle the line between cant and content
What was remarkable last night was how completely absent anything remotely that specific was from the podium. I mean, you had people coming on stage talking about starting an organization to help struggling family farmers, or battling a life-threatening illness and there was zero political content whatsoever. I kept waiting for the moral of the story, but it never came. The moral, I suppose, was: people helping other people is good. People overcoming personal obstacles is good. Ok, sure. What the hell does this have to do with who should be president? The closest you ever got all night was Fred Thompson warning that Barack Obama’s plan to tax businesses would end up hurting employees. “Finally!” I thought, “an honest-to-God political proposition that one can agree or disagree with. “
The point, I’m trying to make is that there are relative degrees of cant, and there’s a direct relationship between the strength of a political coalition and how specific it can be. The weaker you are the more anodyne, the less popular you are, the more cant. Think of a set of concentric circles: on the outer most ring, for, say, the Democratic party is a stipulation about mandates being the best policy mechanism to deliver universal healthcare. This is controversial, so it didn’t appear during the four days in Denver. But retreat one circle back towards the center and you have the proposition “All Americans should have access to quality affordable healthacare.” This is both a consensus within the party, and very popular among voters, so Democrats said it again and again from the podium,
But Republicans can’t say that because they don’t believe it. So they have to move yet another layer in, to something like “It’s better to be healthy than sick.” This is a party that is so ideologically exhausted and discredited, that it has to retreat into the tiny, little core at the center of its worldview where words like “service”, “honor” and “country” have some kind of totemic force, in order to be able to say anything at all. But the question is: What do you plan to do with the country when you run it?
Tonight, when Sarah Palin speaks, you’re going to get a lot of appealing personal anecdotes, and more invocations of these same themes, “reform,” chief among them. But she won’t spend much time answering that question. Because she can’t.