Thursday, July 20, 2006

Election Rhetoric

Thanks to Dr. Ken Zagacki for posing the original question from which this brief entry grew.
From a cultural point of view, the rhetoric of contemporary American presidents is isomorphic. Whether they are liberal, conservative, or middle-of-the-road, their discourse stills bears the same, essential cultural marks. You can't be president of the United States unless you accept - at least on the surface - certain cultural pre-conditions. These preconditions are not political; rather, they are cultural embeddings consistently found in American political rhetoric.

In the tradition of Roger Williams, John Winthrop, William Bradford, and Anne Hutchinson, George Bancroft's History of the United States (10 vols. 1834-1876) documented the American stage of universal history. He described it as an "epic of liberty," which exhorted "The citizens of the United States . . . [to] cherish . . the men who . . . scattered the seminal principles of republican freedom and national independence." America, in this mythical epic of history, was the culmination of historic forces seeking to develop Winthrop's "City upon a Hill" (1630), upon whom the "eyes of all people" lay.

American presidential rhetoric is isomorphic in its expression of such beliefs. American presidents, liberal, conservative, and moderate, all declaim the United States as a nation of "special" destiny, "special" achievements, a frontier for humanity, changer of the world. Such claims evoke cultural myths that are deeply embedded in American interpretations of history and world events. From the beginning, the American myth has involved a cultural conversation (itself uniquely democratic) that combines three aspects of its history: the frontier, equality, and a new beginning for mankind, all of which are combinatory and recursive, each contributing to the others. Consider the following from nomination speeches:

"We meet at a special moment in history, you and I. The Cold War is over. Soviet communism has collapsed and our values - freedom, democracy, individual rights, free enterprise, they have triumphed all around the world . . . now that we've changed the world, it's time to change America" - Bill Clinton - 16 July, 1992

"I believe in the energy and innovative spirit of America's workers, entrepreneurs, farmers, and ranchers . . . Nothing will hold us back. The story of America is the story of expanding liberty [...] Our Nation's founding commitment is still our deepest commitment: in our world, and here at home, we will extend the frontiers of freedom." - G. W. Bush - 9 Sept., 2004

"I see America as the leader - a unique nation with a special role in the world . . . and this has been called the American Century, because in it we were the dominant force for good in the world. We saved Europe, cured polio, we went to the moon, and lit the world with our culture. And now we are on the verge of a new century . . . I say it will be another American Century" - G. H. W. Bush - 18 Aug., 1988

Despite the ideological differences among these candidates, all of them alluded to similar aspects of the American myth: freedom, special history, special destiny, and the power of the unique American frontier spirit. "Our" values are remarkably similar when expressed in the nomination speech. "Our" history is remarkably "special," and "our" character as a people has given us this history as well as the unique ability to leave a mark on the future. No matter the forum, the American presidential person must appeal to certain cultural universals - or myths - with which his constituency will identify. There are multiple reasons: it is an appeal to unity in a markedly divisive political environment: "we" are all Americans, and therefore "we" must all play a role in the national future, which "I," as one of us, will help lead. "We" can continue shaping the world, but to do so, "we" must be united in our unique destiny.
Currently on miPod: "Brain of J" - Pearl Jam (Yield)

No comments: