Meaningless words — politics today

I try to confine my political posts to Fridays, but due to user error, my Friday blog posted yesterday. I was just going to link to it again today but then I came across a Vox article about how the current political climate has become a collection of meaningless words.

“Republicans’ Obamacare repeal drive has revealed a political system where words have no meaning”

That’s a helluva headline. And the subhed isn’t any sunnier:

This is not normal, and it is not sustainable.

Writer Ezra Klein doesn’t pull any punches

“This has been a policymaking process built, from the beginning, atop lies. Lies about what the bills do and don’t do. Lies about what is wrong with Obamacare and lies about what the GOP’s legislation would do to fix it. Lies about what Republicans are trying to achieve and lies about which problems they seek to solve.”

Lying is immoral, of course. Think about that the next time these lawmakers piously try to restrict women’s access to abortion and defund programs designed to prevent teen pregnancy. But a bigger challenge than the havoc their policies are wreaking is the havoc created by their policy-making.

meaningless wordsAs Klein notes, the political system

“…is built around the idea that the signals sent by the central players are meaningful, even if the rhetoric is often slippery.”

Politicians may spin but we can generally count on them to do something approximating what they say they will do. Klein again:

“That is not the case here.”

McConnell’s meaningless words

Klein offers some choice selections from “Restoring the Senate,” a speech Mitch McConnell gave in 2014. It includes gems like:

“…if you approach legislation without regard for the views of the other side. Without some meaningful buy-in, you guarantee a food fight. You guarantee instability and strife.”

He also bemoaned the demise of the Senate’s “vigorous committee process,” and promised he would restore it, if given the chance:

“There’s a lot of empty talk around here about the corrosive influence of partisanship. Well, if you really want to do something about it, you should support a more robust committee process. That’s the best way to end the permanent shirts against skins contest the Senate’s become. Bills should go through committee. And if Republicans are fortunate enough to gain the majority next year, they would.”

If the Democrats got the opportunity to filibuster this healthcare bill, forged “in the Majority Leader’s conference room” (a practice McConnell decried just three years ago)—if we had the opportunity to filibuster, I think they should take the floor, one after the other, and read McConnell’s words into the record. Because the things he spoke out against are a blueprint for everything he is now doing.

Meaningless words, empty gestures

John McCain, former American hero, returned early from his taxpayer-funded brain surgery and spoke passionately on the floor of the Senate about returning to the “normal order” of things—the committee process, bipartisan cooperation—the kind of utopia McConnell laid out in his 2014 speech.

Opponents of the bill needed just one vote to stop McConnell’s Motion to Proceed. McCain’s vote. In an alternate reality, we might expect him to vote against the motion. Sadly, we’re living in the reality where words have no meaning. Of course he voted Aye.
UPDATE: Except to John McCain, whose 11th hour No vote struck the final blow. Had he signaled his intention to vote No earlier, his Republican colleagues might have had time to retrench and try again. “Wait for the show,” he told a Democratic colleague as they headed to the Senate floor.

Klein concludes:

“Skepticism is healthy in politics. But this era requires more than skepticism. This is a total collapse of the credibility of all the key policymakers in the American government. Our political system is built on the assumption that words have some meaning, that the statements policymakers make have some rough correlation to the actions they will take. But here, in the era of bullshit politics, they don’t. If this becomes the new normal in policymaking, it will be disastrous.”

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The power of declarative sentences — Thanks, Mitch

Declarative sentences are memorable
Senator Elizabeth Warren. I don’t know who to credit for the graphic.
I haven’t written about this earlier, under the principle that when your opponent is shooting himself in the foot, you don’t take away the gun. But Senator Mitch McConnell’s decision earlier this week to use declarative sentences in his denunciation of his colleague Senator Elizabeth Warren is just too delicious to pass by.

First, a definition, from

“A declarative sentence (also known as a statement) makes a statement and ends with a period. It’s named appropriately because it declares or states something.”

I’m sure my current readers all know exactly what Senator McConnell “declared” or “stated” about Senator Warren. But blog posts have a long life. So for those of you reading this years from now, long after the generation of women who’ve had the last sentence tattooed on various parts of their anatomy have died out, I’ll recap.

Speaking on the Senate floor during a debate about the nomination of a Notorious Racist (and current Senator) to be our Attorney General, Senator Warren began to read a letter written three decades ago by civil rights icon Coretta Scott King. King was not impressed with the character of the notorious racist—perhaps because of his notorious racism—and she said as much. Back then, he had been nominated to be a federal judge; that nomination failed. But potato/po-tah-to: what’s disqualifyingly racist for a judge in the 1980s is apparently just the right attitude for the Attorney General in the current Republican administration.

So Senator Warren was reading this historical document into the record when she was shut down for breaking an obscure Senate rule about speaking ill of a colleague. Fun fact: the rule was apparently created back in the early 20th century to protect a senator who—incidentally—favored lynching black people when they tried to vote. I don’t know about you, but I could do with a whole lot less irony in politics today.

If you’re saying something idiotic, don’t use declarative sentences

Anyway, to the declarative sentences in question. McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, was called upon to explain why his colleagues brought this dusty old lyncher-protecting rule out of the closet. He replied:

She was warned.
She was given an explanation.
Nevertheless, she persisted.

Politicians obfuscate all the time. They specialize in what my virtual colleague Josh Bernoff calls “weasel words”:

“an adjective, adverb, noun, or verb that indicates quantity or intensity but lacks precision.”

I’ll bet Mitch McConnell wishes he’d obfuscated the Warren explanation. Obfuscated prose doesn’t end up on tattoos or T-shirts or protest signs. “Nevertheless, she persisted” is going to hang around McConnell’s neck for a long time, like the stinking, decomposing albatross in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner“—the daily reminder of a selfish, pointless act.

Seriously, if you’re going to say something idiotic, don’t say it in the most memorable way possible. Not just one declarative sentence, but three in a row. And don’t use such a poetic cadence—short sentence building to longer sentence, building to the final sentence with its four almost equally accented syllables: a drumbeat of declaration.

McConnell could not have offered a clearer example of how to make your message stick.

“Strict Father” says

But look at McConnell’s words again. They’re not just any declarative sentences, they’re the declarative sentences of a father chastising a misbehaving child. Why are you grounding me? That’s so unfair!!! And the father answers, “You were warned. You were given an explanation.” Okay, so I don’t know any fathers who’d find “nevertheless” tripping off their tongues. But you get the idea.

McConnell spoke that way because that’s how Conservative Republicans speak. That’s how they view the world, how they process information.

Political linguist George Lakoff has been writing about this for years—Republicans adopt the language of the strict parent; Democrats that of the nurturing parent. It’s why we don’t understand the other side’s arguments, why we can’t talk constructively.

Of course, Senator Elizabeth Warren is a fully grown adult; a Harvard Law professor; head of the panel that created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and, since 2012, one of McConnell’s colleagues in the United States Senate. She’s also a woman, the nearest analog to Hillary Clinton left in the political arena. So they silenced her, and then offered an explanation that treated her like a miscreant child.

You might call it “dog-whistle sexism”—people who ascribe to the strict father school of government will hear the echoes of a parental rebuke in his words. They’ll absorb the message that Warren is too childish for her opinions and actions to matter.

Some might say that Warren’s silencing was driven by the Senate rules, not by sexism. If that’s the case, then why were several male senators allowed to read Coretta Scott King’s letter, in whole or in part, without interruption?

The “strict father” shtick stops working when Mother recognizes she has power and agency, too. “Nevertheless, she persisted” will help us there. In fact, it already has. Thanks, Mitch.

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