Sound Byte Politics

Christopher Hitchens lampoons the shallow discourse of our political campaigns.

Barack Obama Change Hope Dream Cartoon It is cliché, not plagiarism, that is the problem with our stilted, room-temperature political discourse. It used to be that thinking people would say, with at least a shred of pride, that their own convictions would not shrink to fit on a label or on a bumper sticker. But now it seems that the more vapid and vacuous the logo, the more charm (or should that be “charisma”?) it exerts. Take “Yes We Can,” for example. It’s the sort of thing parents might chant encouragingly to a child slow on the potty-training uptake. As for “We Are the People We Have Been Waiting For” (in which case, one can only suppose that now that we have arrived, we can all go home), I didn’t think much of it when Rep. Dennis Kucinich used it at an anti-war rally in 2004 (“We Are the People We Are Waiting For” being his version) or when Thomas Friedman came across it at an MIT student event last December. He wrote, by the way, that just hearing it gave him—well, you guess what it gave him. Hope? That’s exactly right.

Pretty soon, we should be able to get electoral politics down to a basic newspeak that contains perhaps 10 keywords: Dream, Fear, Hope, New, People, We, Change, America, Future, Together. Fishing exclusively from this tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions, it ought to be possible to drive all thinking people away from the arena and leave matters in the gnarled but capable hands of the professional wordsmiths and manipulators. In the new jargon, certain intelligible ideas would become inexpressible. (How could one state, for example, the famous Burkean principle that many sorts of change ought to be regarded with skepticism?) In a rather poor trade-off for this veto on complexity, many views that are expressible (and “We the People Together Dream of and Hope for New Change in America” would be really quite a long sentence in the latest junk language) will, in turn, be entirely and indeed almost beautifully unintelligible.

And it’s not as if anybody is looking for coded language in which to say: “Health care—who needs it?” or “Special interests and lobbyists—give them a break,” let alone “Dr. King’s dream—what a snooze.” It’s more that the prevailing drivel assumes that every adult in the country is a completely illiterate jerk who would rather feel than think and who must furthermore be assumed, for a special season every four years, to imagine that everyone else “in America” or in “this country” is unemployed or starving or sleeping under a bridge.

While Barack Obama is the obvious target of this lament, it’s only because he’s its most adept practitioner in quite some time. Newt Gingrich is his most recent Republican analogue and he didn’t have Obama’s charm and charisma. Gingrich’s “Contract with America” was focus-tested and he was a master of using buzz words; he did, at least, put this all to use in the service of some genuine policy wonkery. His most recent book, Real Change: From the World That Fails to the World That Works, manages to work in several of the keywords into the title.

The bottom line, though, is that it works. Campaigns are about broad visions and politicians who get into the policy muck almost always lose.

via Ericka Anderson

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    Wow. Talk about tone-deaf. Does Hitch not realize that his own blithe generalizations _are_ the shallow discourse of our political campaigns?

  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Legion, do you know what an empty suit is? How about an empty suit with funny ears? I have a job. My house and car are paid for. I am invested in the stock market. I am by no means wealthy, yet my hope is for peace based upon the strength of our nation, for lower taxes, for less government interference in my life. I don’t want to be told what I should buy or what I should use. Who I have to like or what, if anything, I can smoke. (I don’t smoke). Mostly, I do not want to pay for stuff you should pay for. It is not the job of government to take away from me to give to someone else. If I want to help anyone, that is up to me, not some idiot in Washington DC or Sacramento, CA. I have the feeling what Obama or Clinton want to do is change how we do things in this country. If I wanted to live in a socialist state, I would move north. Seems to me, the job of what government is supposed to do in this country is pretty well laid out in the Constitution of the United States. I do not fathom what part of that people like you fail to understand.

  3. KJ says:

    In truth, campaigns are really about who can promise the most and be believed by the majority while knowing full well that those that make those promises can neither deliver nor intend to deliver on those promises.

    Yes, this is cynical, but history proves it to be true.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    Gingrich coupled his rhetoric with solid policy proposals containing both tactical and strategic goals. Obama’s campaign seems to be big on words but lacking in the substance to support them. It’s called hollow rhetoric and it’s far different than the “Contract with America” which was accepted as a brilliant political action plan.

    I’m afraid if the Dems actually articulated their positions rather than using hollow rhetoric voters would abandon them very quickly.

  5. Tlaloc says:


    I was wondering at the source of the current recession. Apparently Hitch stumbled out of his local dive bar long enough to blearily hunt and peck another idiotic screed.

    The good news is that his stimulus program for purveyors of Wild Turkey should be back on track by now.

    (I would feel bad mocking his alcoholism if he wasn’t such a piece of &*^% scum^%$# who really should be dead by now so as to raise the collective human morality score, but since he is, yeah I don’t feel bad at all.)

  6. Christopher says:

    I agree with Steve above. How can you compare the empty Obamessiah with the detailed Gingrich’s “Contract with America”?

    There is no comparison. Surprised at you James.