The news of late is perplexing -- enough so to knit your brows into a permanent knot. I find myself checking my wallet from time to time, just to make sure the cash has not vaporized. But at least one continuing story places no strain on anyone’s brain. All it takes is five minutes of exposure to the presidential campaign to begin feeling considerably dumber. Things might improve following the first debate, this Friday, but the damage has been done. The past month has been, not an insult to the public’s intelligence, so much as a case of assault and battery.
The candidates once seemed destined for something more serious. “Mr. Obama is intelligent, inspiring, and appears by instinct to be a consensus-seeking pragmatist,” notes a commentator in the latest issue of The Economist. “John McCain has always stood for limited, principled government, and has distanced himself throughout his career from the religious ideologues that [sic] have warped Republicanism. An intelligent debate about issues of utmost importance ... seemed an attainable proposition.”
Instead, we parse the implications of lipstick on a pig. It is hard to imagine a greater disconnect between campaign agonistics and the world outside the candidates’ strategy meetings.
Was this inevitable? Elvin T. Lim, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, makes only a few brief references to campaign speeches in his recent book The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press). But his analysis suggests that long-developing tendencies within the presidency have had the effect of “hollowing out ... our public discursive sphere.”
Lim’s book is not, as one might reasonably guess, devoted to cataloging the W. malapropisms (a needless exercise at this late date). The stupefying dynamic of presidential rhetoric is scrupulously bipartisan. The speeches of Bill Clinton provide numerous examples of the process that Lim describes, in which factual explanation and rational deliberation have sunk beneath the tide of appeals to feeling, rambling personal anecdotes, and applause-generating punchlines.
“Americans need to be politically educated,” writes Lim, “so that they develop the intellectual and moral capacities that are necessary for competent citizenship, among them, a capacity to look beyond individual interests toward collective interests, and an ability to think through and adjudicate the various policy options that their leaders propose. While we do not expect democratic citizens to be policy experts, there is a threshold level of political knowledge below which their ability to make informed and competent civic judgments is impaired. Presidents are not doing much to elevate this ever-receding threshold.”
At one level, Lim’s argument is a response to Jeffrey K. Tulis’s seminal book The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton University Press, 1987), which traced an important long-term shift in the balance of powers between the legislative and executive branches. Tulis (now an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin) presents a nuanced analysis of how, in the early 20th century, the president acquired an increased role in defining the terms of public debate and policy.
After World War One, presidential speeches seemed less clearly defined as part of a dialog with other office holders. Instead, the president came to be regarded as speaking to, and for, the nation as a whole. Theodore Roosevelt’s description of the presidency as a “bully pulpit” was one phase of this shift; another was expressed in Woodrow Wilson’s confidence that his “Fourteen Points” articulated “the thoughts of the people of the United States” and allowed him to “speak the moral judgment of the United States and not my single judgment.”
One consequence was what Tulis calls “rhetorical proliferation” -- a matter of increased presidential leadership being exercised through the sheer abundance and variety of speechifying. This is where Lim steps in to challenge his predecessor, if only on a rather small point. Tulis maintains that “the surfeit of speech by politicians constitutes a decay of political discourse.” This statement Lim calls an “untenable assumption.”
The real problem, according to Lim, is not quantity but quality -- a reduction in the density and substance of presidential discourse. Using a database containing the entire public record of presidential speeches, Lim runs them through “computer-assisted quantitative content analysis” to show what he calls “the relentless semantic and syntactic simplification of presidential rhetoric.”
The primary metric he relies on during this phase of his analysis is an index called the Flesch score, which uses sentence length and number of syllables to determine the implied reading level of the audience able to follow it. The higher the score, the simpler the text. And Lim’s charts show the Flesch scores for presidential speeches tending to double over the past two centuries.
This is not, alas, so clearcut a proof of cognitive declension as it may first appear. Treating sentence length and frequency of polysyllables as evidence of sophistication is no doubt flattering to the social scientist’s amour propre -- but the trans-historical value of the Flesch scale will be much less credible to anyone familiar with the everyday prose of the 18th and 19th century. (The account of a picnic in a newspaper from 1850 would probably have a more impressive score than Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.) The rush to quantification speeds right past problems of cultural context.
Fortunately this bout of abstracted empiricism soon passes, and Lim moves on to a more substantive analysis of how our Chief Executives have learned to exercise the power of persuasion by dumbing things way, way down.
“Aristotle,” notes Lim, “recognized that effective rhetoric combines elements of logos, or the weighing and judging of reasons for a particular course of action; ethos, the credibility of the speaker; and pathos, emotional appeal.” While ethos and pathos have their place, “we expect the language of democratic political leaders to prioritize logos, the weighing and judging of reasons for a particular course of action.” This entails presenting their guiding ideas “to citizens in a form that can be subjected to public rational disputation, so that only the best can pass legitimately into legislation or government action.”
But the long-term trend has been for presidential speech making to grow ever more “short on logos, disingenuous on ethos, and long on pathos.” The tendency is for presidents to signal ethos “not so much by cataloging in their rhetoric a lifetime of virtuous public service and hence their right to speak authoritatively, but by imitating the language of the people.... Their competence to speak authoritatively to citizens is not argued for; it is merely linguistically implied.” You can be foxy by being folksy.
Perhaps the most telling case is that good old standby, “common sense.” Everybody thinks he or she has it (in spite of doubts about certain relatives) and yet somehow it is also a remarkably rare qualification for high office. Lim points out that the phrase “common sense” or “commonsense” appear in the presidential papers a grand total of 11 times between George Washington and Woodrow Wilson. Since then, it has become far more, well, common -- showing up in presidential speeches some 1,600 times.
And while there was a gradual rise in the frequency of reference to common sense between Harding and Nixon, the expression really became a staple of presidential oratory over the past third of a century -- “even as (or perhaps because) the common sense has become increasingly divided in our polarized times,” writes Lim.
At the same time, appeals to emotion in presidential speech-making have become ever more blatant. Won’t someone please, please think of the children? “Well over half of all references to children in State of the Union addresses since 1790 were uttered by our last five presidents,” notes Lim. Bill Clinton managed to get in 19 references in his second State of the Union address alone. (That may be a record, but records are made to be broken.)
Thanks to a combination of just-us-folks diction, strong emotions, and the careful avoidance of complex words or involved syntax, the modern president can be assured of regular and stormy eruptions of applause from the audience. This, too, seems to be a legacy of the past third of a century. There are few indications of applause in transcripts of presidential speeches before FDR, and only a handful between FDR and Ford. From the Carter presidency onward (and with a huge spike under Clinton) applause became, says Lin, “a litmus test of presidential accomplishment that successive White House press offices have deemed important enough to record for posterity.”
What Lim is describing, in short, is the routinizing of what can only be called demagogic norms in presidential discourse. It has not resulted in a dictatorship, but given the right circumstances, it would. This was not a matter of anyone’s intention -- more like the product of an accumulation and consolidation of trends, with no strong counterforce to resist them.
In particular, Lim traces the effect of the gradual emergence of presidential speech writing as a distinct function. Until fairly recently, preparing speeches was done, if not by the president himself, then by important members of his inner circle involved in making policy. It later became an extremely low-visibility, low-prestige staff assignment. “At one point,” Lim notes, “speech writers were paid from the fund for the payment of chauffeurs and the upkeep of the White House garage.” Under Nixon, the job of presidential speech writing came into its own as a profession -- “more beautician than brain truster,” as one former practitioner described it. And the most reliable indicators of success were instant soundbites and outbursts of applause.
“Perhaps,” Lim muses, “an effective speech should be greeted on its conclusion by silence rather than applause as it invites contemplation and a consideration of matters hitherto unexamined among partisan audiences.” This may count as utopian thinking. The prospect is appealing yet hopeless. “We need,” he continues, “to interrogate the assumption that American democracy can continue apace with the hollowing out of its public sphere by its principal spokesperson.”
Well, yes, we certainly do -- but the question is whether anyone will pay any attention. Are there grounds for optimism? It would be good to know if any exist. But to tell the truth, I put down Lim's book with an awful sense that Sarah Palin maybe qualified for the job after all.