Rhetoric is not a bad thing. The ability to mobilize large groups of citizens to achieve a social, economic, or political objective is, in fact, necessary for the continued success of the American experiment in democracy. That said, the ways in which rhetoric is functioning in the 2012 presidential race are far from ideal.
What we see, particularly in the Romney-Ryan campaign, is a disposition to use rhetoric to conceal, simplify, and co-opt. Over the course of the past several weeks as the unified GOP campaign, Romney and Ryan have sustained a propaganda machine grounded in the ‘eternal American values’ of freedom, liberty, and equality, while at the same time promoting policies which would actually limit opportunity, curtail equal rights, and actively support the (exploitative) status quo.
This is, of course, not the first time that Republicans have positioned themselves as the savior of the average American while, in many cases, only playing to his devotion to the cultural myth of the American dream.
Conversely, the claim that many Americans would actually be best served by voting for a Democratic ticket despite their devotion to the GOP is also well-documented, particularly in Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. What makes this piece still relevant is not that political scientists have never before made such claims, but rather that mainstream media sources as well as most elected officials seem too terrified to call conservative rhetoric by its true name: oppressive misinformation.
The notion of oppressive conservative rhetoric functioning at all levels of this presidential campaign may seem extreme to some — indeed, it did to me as well.
However, it takes just a short foray into the text of Romney and Ryan’s first speech together in Norfolk, Virginia, as well as Romney’s acceptance speech in Tampa, to understand just how dichotomous the rhetoric and policies of the GOP actually are.
While I would encourage everyone to re-read with a critical eye the transcripts of Romney’s recent talks, I will focus here on several specific instances where I believe conservative Republicans have attempted to co-op the language of the (generally) Democratic progressive movement to meet their own needs, and in the process alienated or simply ignored thousands of Americans.
It is by positioning themselves as the protagonists of a Horatio Alger myth and by affording their accomplishments the glow of the Founders that modern-day conservatives like Romney seem to be advancing themselves as ‘protectors of liberty’ while simultaneously working against low-income people, female-bodied individuals, queer folks, and communities of color.
Introducing Paul Ryan as his running mate in Norfolk, Romney said:
“We will help care for those who cannot care for themselves, and we will return work to welfare. As poverty has risen to historic and tragic levels, with nearly one out of six Americans now having fallen into poverty, we will act to bring these families into the middle class. Unlike the current president, who has cut Medicare funding by $700 billion, we will preserve and protect Medicare and Social Security. Under the current president, health care has only become more expensive. We will reform health care so that more Americans have access to affordable healthcare, and we will get that started by repealing and replacing Obamacare.”
It is first worth noting that President Obama is not, despite popular belief, against the “welfare to work” reforms of the Clinton era. In fact, the Romney attack ad depicting President Obama as king of the hand-outs to almost exclusively actors who were people of color has been declared “pants on fire” false by the respected non-partisan organization, Politifact.
Secondly, this citation demonstrates a central element of my argument: Romney and Ryan's savior complex. It seems logically inconsistent for the Republican presidential campaign to position itself as the savior of Medicare benefits when only months prior, Ryan’s Roadmap for America budget took active strives to privatize benefits under Medicare and end social assistance in the United States as we know it.
Indeed, it makes very little sense to me how these statements are not disproven — head on — by news anchors on every major network. They amount to very few truthful claims, and are actively capable of misleading millions of undecided American voters.
For instance, how can conservatives truly claim to reform health care and lower costs to all members of society without confronting their powerful pharmaceutical backers? If history tells us anything, it is that America’s health care costs, driven by Republican addictions to the privatization of public goods, are much higher than similarly developed advanced democracies.
“We Americans look at one another's success with pride, not resentment, because we know, as more Americans work hard, take risks, and succeed, more people will prosper, our communities will benefit, and individual lives will be improved and uplifted," said Romney.
"This idea is founded on the principles of liberty, freedom, free enterprise, self-determination and government by consent of the governed. This idea is under assault. So, we have a critical decision to make as a nation. We are on an unsustainable path that is robbing America of our freedom and security. It doesn't have to be this way.”
I will not argue against the notion that the United States has a long ways to go before it reaches the status of an ideal democracy. That said, I believe the notion that conservative trickle-down economics is the only way to go betrays a larger truth: that a country where 40 percent of the wealth is held by 1 percent of the population has much deeper problems.
The notion that continuing Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans will benefit all Americans does nothing for the 6 million Americans living on only benefits from the Supplemental Food Assistance Program (SNAP). It seems absurd to hear the Romney-Ryan campaign claim recognize the existence of such profound levels of poverty while at the same time remaining blissfully out-of-touch signals an unsalvageable dichotomy between the people of the United States and their elected officials.
It is not enough to claim that college students ought to borrow money from their parents to fund a new business or seek additional degrees. It is not enough to borrow a federal budget on the backs of the poor or to promote ‘opportunity’ while cutting Pell Grants for the most economically-disadvantaged college students. The notion that we can rob Americans of their freedom by seeking to promote basic human rights for all 300+ million Americans does very little for a constructive Presidential debate.
Thursday night, Romney echoed similar rhetoric, drawing heavily on his popular stump speech. While the arguments mentioned above were by and large reiterated. Romney took an additional step forwards by addressing women, however.
“As Governor of Massachusetts, I chose a woman Lt. Governor, a woman chief of staff, half of my cabinet and senior officials were women, and in business, I mentored and supported great women leaders who went on to run great companies.”
While I am the first to commend Romney for including female-bodied people in his gubernatorial cabinet, I resent his attempt to tokenize this social group in his acceptance speech. It is the definition of hypocrisy to court the female vote while simultaneously leading a party that seeks to impose a constitutional ban on abortions even in cases of rape and incest. It seems illogical to be that a GOP official could make better decisions about the well-being of a female-bodied person and their children than that individual and their medical provider.
Romney continued, “Nearly 1 out of 6 Americans are in poverty -- the worst rate in a generation. Moms and dads are struggling to make ends meet. Household incomes have dropped by more than $4,000 over the past four years.”
I am glad that the Romney-Ryan campaign cited this figure; I am glad that they are discussing the ways that the American electorate is adversely affected by our economic decline and focusing on ways to ameliorate the conditions we experience on a daily basis.
That said, I am stunned by the audacity of the Romney-Ryan campaign to claim to speak for me and other Americans that envision a socially-just society characterized by actual equal opportunity, a society where traditionally marginalized populations such as communities of color, low-income families, female-bodied people, queer folks, and the undocumented are afforded rights and recognized by their government.
Given the current trajectory of conservative rhetoric, it appears as though conservative leaders are co-opting the language of social justice advocates so as to tolerate the continued oppression of these social groups under the veil of inclusive and evocative rhetoric. It is this cult of the status quo — this language of the oppressor rendering invisible the oppressed — that I will not stand for.