Did you follow the news on Budget Director Mulvaney’s testimony before Congress yesterday? You’d have thought he committed murder before Democrats very eyes. Words were thrown around willy-nilly; words like “betrayal,” “inhumane,” “cruel” and “immoral.” Response to such rhetoric really deserves essay length discussion, but I just want to make two quick points.
Point One – those are powerful words, very powerful. That’s why they are being used. But in point of fact using them in this context only weakens them. For one thing those words are absolutes and at best the budget debate is one of degree, and I think it is safe to say that about any budget proposal any president has ever made. Thus the words are cheapened simply by context. This is also an attempt to more-or-less redefine those words. This is about money which is a morally neutral thing. The use of money has moral consequences, but not money itself. When you add or expand the meaning of words they become less powerful simply by virtue of the confusion related to the broad application of the word. A bullet to the heart is very powerful and generally deadly, but a shotgun loaded with bird shot is often survivable. Words like these should be reserved for bullet-like use, but they are trying to turn them into shotgun blasts.
Finally on this point when you apply words that have been applied to some of the most heinous acts in human history to a budget debate, not only do you cheapen the words, you evidence a moral confusion that is actually frightening. Is a federal government budget really anything like chattel slavery or genocide? I mean seriously. This is the argumentation of children, “Mommy, brother tried to KILL me when he threw the basketball at me sooo hard.” PUH-LEAZE!
Which brings me to my second point. The pervasive use of such language over the last 36 hours from multiple sources evidences amazing message discipline on the part of the administration’s opponents. Clearly the talking points memo was widely distributed, thoroughly read, and slavishly followed. This is both a good and a bad thing.
It is good for a party to have that kind of message discipline. Frankly it will enable the Dems to score some rhetorical points when they have no actual argument. The sheer volume created by that discipline, by the repetition from multiple sources of essentially the same accusation does convince people, even if it is completely vacant of content or meaning. In the realm of policy making that is actually a good thing – unfortunately for the wrong side of the debate. Would that Republicans had this kind of message discipline, we’d win more.
But frankly we are less about winning and more about ideas. We want lots of ideas and debate so that we can arrive at the best possible solution. We are far closer to the American ideal, but far less effective because of it in the Twitter age. Let’s be honest, 140 characters is good for message impact but awful for analysis and understanding. Combine that with the now passé sound bite of television, which can be paragraph length by Twitter standards, and ideas hardly matter anymore. We are left only with impactful rhetoric, vacant though it actually is.
I resist the temptation to engage in this form of communication because I do not want to contribute to the dumbing-down of the nation. I sense that most serious people on the right find themselves in the same boat. We want to raise up the nation! That fact notwithstanding, the success we currently enjoy is built in no small measure on the name-calling tweets of POTUS. Maybe we have to engage in this stuff?
But in so doing we have to ask ourselves how do we help people move forward from it. How to we move people from supporting a slam-down to engaging in meaningful debate? If we simply become manipulators of the people via messaging discipline we really do reduce the nation to oligarchy.
We live in perilous times.