A demagogue, H.L. Mencken once said, is someone "who will preach doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots." This is a pretty good description of the US presidential candidates in action at their late-summer conventions. Although, to be fair to those who listened to the convention speeches, it was more a case of preaching idiotic ideas to people who wished those ideas were true.
The contrast between the gassy rhetoric of the politicians and the weighty problems facing workers was particularly striking at this year's conventions, highlighted further by the juxtaposition between jubilant delegates inside the convention hall and the pepper-sprayed protestors outside.
The candidates from both parties employed the same basic template for demagoguery in writing their convention speeches. We encounter the same sorts of rhetorical techniques and the logic of "pubic relations" shapes every line. The candidates are less interested in conveying ideas than manipulating them to fashion images to sell the product – in this case, the candidates themselves.
The first chapter of Convention Speeches for Dummies, if such a book were ever to be written, would probably be entitled: "Making the Most of the Family." Each candidate, without exception, began with extravagant praise for the family – the candidate's own family, that is. The candidates informed the American people that they too have spouses who are loving and loyal, children and grandchildren they are proud of, and hardworking parents as wise as they are kind. (Perhaps this convinced the skeptics who thought that the candidates had been hatched in a secret laboratory in North Dakota.)
Behind my plastic exterior, each candidate seemed to be saying, is a real live human being, just like you. Just like us, but even better. Thanks to the "quintessentially American" values of hard work, perseverance and personal integrity that the candidates acquired as children from their saintly mothers.
In his speech, Joe Biden described his 90-year-old mother as a person "defined by her sense of honor" who "believes bravery lives in every heart" and that "it will be summoned." She taught little Joey the "dignity of work" and that "anyone can make it if they try" and emphasized that it is important to "live our faith and treasure our family." Biden said that his "mother's creed is the American creed: No one is better than you; you are everyone's equal; and everyone is equal to you." (And US Senators are more equal than most.)
McCain mentioned his mother too, saying: "I wouldn't be here tonight but for the strength of her character." Thankfully he was not as long-winded as Biden – perhaps to secure adequate time for another thrilling episode of "John McCain: War Hero" – but he did mention that his mother taught him some patriotic claptrap about how "we're all meant to use our opportunities to make ourselves useful to our country."
Obama praised his mother "who raised my sister and me on her own while she worked and earned her degree; who once turned to food stamps but was still able to send us to the best schools in the country with the help of student loans and scholarships." For good measure, Obama threw in his grandmother too, "who worked her way up from the secretarial pool to middle-management" and taught him "about hard work."
The mother featured in Palin's speech was Palin herself, who "was just your average hockey mom" whose political career began when she "signed up for the PTA" because she "wanted to make my kids' public education better." Palin had a small-town upbringing that encouraged "honesty, sincerity and dignity" and she thanked her parents for teaching her that, "this is America, and every woman can walk through every door of opportunity."
It wasn't just the parents who were mobilized for the cause: children and grandchildren served as useful props too. Palin's 4-month old son, who suffers from Down Syndrome, was brought to the raucous event and passed around on stage for the photo op. Obama made use of his two daughters, who told daddy how much they love him. And Biden said that when he looked at his grandchildren, and at Obama's daughters, he realized: "I'm here for their future." Many watching this strange spectacle must hope that the candidates' love for those little ones will be enough to keep their powerful fingers away from "the button."
But, lest we feel too safe, in the next breath these politicians are talking about their sons who are headed off to war, such as Beau Biden or Jimmy McCain. Palin also got some good mileage out of her son Track, who not only is headed to Iraq but will conveniently ship out on September 11 "in the service of his country" (by securing the Starbucks in the Green Zone).
It is rather sickening to see how willing the candidates are to squeeze out whatever political advantage can be had from their children. Even the pregnancy of Palin's teenage daughter –and shotgun wedding – is good election fodder, appealing to those families who have experienced that common side-effect of "abstinence education."
We feel your pain
Once the family motif had been fully exploited, right down to the last grandchild, the candidates shared some snapshots of "less fortunate" families and individuals in the US. Luckily for them, there are literally millions of hard-luck stories to choose from!
Obama, for instance, spoke of "a woman in Ohio, on the brink of retirement [who] finds herself one illness away from disaster after a lifetime of hard work" and "a man in Indiana has to pack up the equipment he's worked on for twenty years and watch it shipped off to China, and then chokes up as he explains how he felt like a failure when he went home to tell his family the news."
Notice how careful Obama was to choose examples from crucial "swing states" (and also throw in China as a convenient scapegoat). One can easily imagine political advisors sifting through such evidence of capitalist misery to get to the political gold, weighing each situation carefully.
Biden said in his speech that he looks out at people's homes during his evening train ride home from work and "can almost hear what they're talking about at the kitchen table after they put the kids to bed," imagining the following sorts of conversations:
"Winter's coming. How we gonna pay the heating bills? Another year and no raise? Did you hear the company may be cutting our health care? Now, we owe more on the house than it's worth. How are we going to send the kids to college? How are we gonna be able to retire?"
Biden's little story (punctuated with his "gonna's") is meant to highlight his compassion and solidarity for working folk – and he is so proud that he rides a train that he had Obama mention it too! – but the image of a powerful US Senator breezing through town, as he daydreams about stick-figure citizens in between sips of coffee, only underscores the distance separating him from those kitchen-table conversations.
McCain tried his hand at this compassion stuff too, recognizing that "these are tough times for many of you." Unfortunately there was no train window separating him from a heckler (and Iraq War veteran) who proceeded to berate the candidate for his poor record on veteran's rights. After the ungrateful citizen had been dragged out of the hall, and the chants of "U.S.A! U.S.A.!" to drown out his heckling had subsided, McCain continued reading from his teleprompter: "You're worried about keeping your job or finding a new one," the monotone voice intoned, "and you're struggling to put food on the table and stay in your home." And later, McCain threw in a few swing-state stories of his own, such as "Bill and Sue Nebe from Farmington Hills, Michigan, who lost their real estate investments in the bad housing market" so that now Bill has a temporary job and "Sue works three jobs to help pay the bills."
In recounting these stories, the candidates showed no hint that their own political parties bear any responsibility, nor did they recognize any connection between such problems and our current social system. The whole point was just to show off their own compassion, which Bush Sr. tried to do on campaign trail back in 1992 when he succinctly said, "Message: I care."
Only around the middle of their speeches did the candidates finally begin to sketch some of the policies they plan to implement if elected. But these promises are so vague as to almost defy analysis.
For the few ideas that they did discuss in any detail – regarding taxation, education and foreign policy – the similarities between the candidates far outweighed the differences. Both McCain and Obama pledged to lower taxes for the "middle class," improve education, and somehow win the war in Afghanistan (while keeping Iran and Russian in their place).
Obama kicked off his list of policy solutions with the vow to reform the tax code so as to "cut taxes for 95% of all working families." Even setting aside the question of whether sweeping tax cuts will be possible, while waging two wars in the midst of deep recession, it is telling that Obama and the Democrats focused so much of their attention on the issue of taxation, which is not a working-class issue to begin with (as taxes ultimately come out of the surplus-value created in production). Moreover, Obama is quietly stepping back from an earlier promise to rescind Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy in recent months.
After listing many of the grave problems facing the country earlier in his speech – and harping on the need for "change" throughout his campaign – ultimately the best that Obama can come up with is to steal a page from the Republican playbook and call for tax cuts as an economic cure-all. This is change that John McCain can believe in, who also promised to cut taxes in his speech.
And the two candidates are on the same page for other issues as well. Both call for something called "energy independence" and made the usual pledge to root out corruption and eliminate corporate loopholes as a means of securing the necessary government funds.
Both also promised to improve education, although there was a difference between Obama's promise to "recruit an army of new teachers and pay them higher salaries" and McCain's vow to "shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition [and] empower parents with choice." Still, Obama is reluctant to veer off too sharply from the current administration and in his speech he threw in a line about calling for "higher standards and more accountability," which indicated his agreement with aspects of Bush's "No Child Left Behind" policy.
Perhaps the biggest policy difference concerned health care. McCain ignored the issue, except to say that he opposes "government-run health care system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor," while Obama emphasized the need for improvements. Yet Obama only calls for an expansion of access to medical insurance, not a reform that would drive out the private insurance companies.
The candidates seemed a little bored by such domestic issues, but warmed up when it came to demonstrating that they are reckless and bloodthirsty enough to be "Commander-in-Chief." Both promised, repeatedly, to keep America and its people safe. Neither expressed any hesitation in sending troops to war and pledged to strengthen the armed forces. Both vowed to continue the fight against Al-Qaeda and issued threats to Iran and Russia. It seems that Obama's days as the "anti-war candidate" are long gone.
This discussion of policy, which should have made the distinction between the two candidates clear, only underscored their similarities, while again revealing the enormous gap between the severity of the problems faced – whether economic, diplomatic or environmental – and the meager "solutions" that both parties are offering.
No sooner had the candidate uttered the obligatory "God bless America" to end the convention speech than TV commentators were breathlessly informing viewers that it was a "homerun" that electrified the crowd and will energize the base of the party. It was as if the pundits were frightened that, if given a split-second for reflection, viewers might reach the alternative conclusion that the speech was rather pointless and insipid.
Both parties made every effort to generate the most favorable reaction to their candidate's speech. Even before it was delivered, there were newspaper articles revealing what the speech would discuss, with titles like: "Obama to Get Specific" or "McCain to Strike a Bipartisan Note." At first glance this custom of disclosing the content of the speech in advance seems rather bizarre, as it makes the speeches even less interesting to watch, but it gives the TV commentators an idea of how they should frame the discussion.
The entire process surrounding the convention speeches is hermetically sealed from the public and from reality itself. If the candidates manage to "hit one out of the park," as the cliché goes, it is only because US politics is a game played on a narrow field of little-league proportions.