Tales Of Our Times
By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water
For decades now, communication gurus for each of the two big political parties have written books on selecting trick words to fool people. These authors have sold a good many such books, which appeal to each author’s party. The books on word tactics make clear how the opposing party chooses words that muddle issues, which in turn gives those wrongdoers a head start with voters.
To turn the tables, both parties heed the logic. The secret is out. Each side seeks and finds new words or new meanings that are clear, muddlesome, and addictive. Each party adds these words to its favored list. And so it goes. The only staunch debate is over which side started this downward spiral.
Try some of the key words in evidence. Many a dustup starts with slogans. Slogans are designed to pack a big punch in a few choice words. To succeed, slogans are built from figures of speech, rather than exact logic. The point that a nifty slogan relates to is strong and clear, but it says little, directly, about what to do or how to do it. Slogans do not permit reasons for or reasons against an idea to appear at the same time. Slogans are a breed apart.
The news brings frequent reports of the sparring between today’s two most consequential slogans, “Make America Great Again” and “Black Lives Matter.” The words by themselves could not be more innocent. Their plain meanings are so simple, true, and welcome as to seem hardly worth saying. Yet, the pair of sayings are said to be formidable foes with vicious effects. Why is this? Does the warring spread from a word choice, a concern about omitted factors, or something else entirely?
Issues are more real than slogans. Nonetheless, issues, too, are easily muddled to pull votes. Today’s two leading slogans conceal major issues within them. Two big issues are “law and order” and “peaceful protest,” as they are named in the news. The news brings frequent reports of sparring between peaceful protests and disruptions by riots, looting, and arson. The nation’s great stream of voters hopes to protect our cherished right to peaceful protest while halting riots, looting, and arson. In contrast, campaigns focus either on protests or on riots in hopes of pulling more votes.
We begin to see how campaigns blur the discourse. Campaigns succeed by showing the highest concern about one troubling aspect of a complex problem. In reality, a remedy that works has to address a diversity of needs all at one time. An effective policy choice must curtail riots and looting while restoring peaceful protest.
Over decades, so slowly as to go unnoticed, politics has drifted from working on issues to campaigning full time. “Debate” has devolved into a shorthand form of virtue signaling, and has forgone its highest purpose of probing the pros and cons among policy options. High school and college debate teams and their coaches used to be a training ground for the vital skills that moved our nation. Student debate teams and those coaches now form the nation’s leading repository for those skills. National politics no longer admits that policies have pros and cons.
In the same vein, we have the newsy battle of “liberty” vs. “justice.” These days, Republicans tout “liberty;” Democrats tout “justice.” Each side drums up news proving the other side’s term means “lawless.” “Lawless,” since the Right contends that Democrats regulate everything but crime. And “lawless,” since the Left contends that Republicans regulate nothing but crime. All the while, our democracy’s Pledge of Allegiance proudly concludes, “with liberty and justice for all.”
Campaigns are staged to provide dim light. Issues fester in the dark.