Elvin Lim, author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency (September 26-October 10)
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Join us here to talk to Elvin Lim, author of The Anti-Intellectual Presidency. He'll be on LibraryThing to discuss his work and answer questions through October 10th.
Tonight, the nation will watch the much awaited first presidential debate, which we now finally know will happen in Oxford, MS. We shall see if substance and candor trumps soundbites and style.
The talk of town continues to be the bail-out proposal still under discussion in the White House, so all eyes will be how and whether the two presidential candidates pivot to talk about economic issues in a debate originally scheduled to deal only with foreign policy issues.
McCain starts off behind here, because he has tried to get on the high horse this week by suspending his campaign, and it is still not clear if he remains on it. He had threatened to pull out of the debate if no agreement could be reached between Congress and the White House. No such agreement seems forthcoming, but he's debating anyway.
Yet the expectations game also works against Obama, who has coasted through a very good week and everyone expects him to consolidate his lead against McCain tonight. McCain has a distinct opportunity here to turn things around, to stop the cycling stories about Governor Palin's lackluster interview performance with Katie Couric and to manage the emerging Democratic narrative about his reckless, and erratic political ways.
Amidst all these political considerations, the question remains if tonight's debate will transpire at the level of substance or at the level of soundbites; at the level of platitudinal punch lines or meaningful arguments. Some words of advivce from King Lear: "Mend your speech a little, Lest you may mar your fortunes."
Hiya Elvin, I'm an interested bystander in the US political arena (being from the UK). The premise of your book sounds really interesting. I'm curious about the link you're exploring between intellect and the content of presidential speeches. I get the impression (and I'm fully aware that I could be way off base here) that speeches are less a product of the individual mind of a specific president and more a product of the political machine that drives him, am I wrong in that impression?
How tied do you think the president's oratory ability is to their ultimate success? Do you believe that the voting majority effectively discriminate between someone who is a great orator and the content of the message they're conveying? Is it easy to obfuscate and pull the wool over the voters eyes?
Speeches are indeed created collectively by the Speechwriting Office or, for candidates, the campaigns. That is why we know for sure that the casualness and simplicity of political speeches are just that - cultivated colloquialism; pretend guilelessness. It's scary when you think of it - when so much science and effort goes into the construction of breezy spontaneity and the cynical production of sincerity.
I think oratorical ability (however one defines it) has a limited effect in influencing presidential success. Look at George Bush now - when a president is unpopular and he presides over a crisis he is perceived to have helped create, all the words in the world cannnot put humpty dumpty together again. Only in specific, constrained circumstances can rhetoric play a pivotal role in influencing outcomes. To be sure, words are more likely to be influential during campaigns then when a president is already in the White House trying to govern (with words).
On to your question about whether a voter can pierce through rhetorical wizardry. Depends on what the spellbinder uses. If he uses emotions, human interest appeals, punch lines, slogans - he stokes a baser fire in us and he often succeeds. Think of the fiery and seductive expurgations of a Hitler or a Mussolini orating before thousands. They KEY for a democratic polity committed to preempting such demagoguery is to insist that our politicians come to us with arguments, reasons, evidence. For such items on the rhetorical menu are subject to rational disputation. The anti-intellectual tools of emotional, human interest appeals and simplistic slogans are not.
If we reject and repudiate rhetorical _ingredients_ that make us susceptible to spellbinders, then citizens will be able to pierce through rhetorical wizardry. And political rhetoric would be put to its nobler purpose of encouraging public deliberation rather than mass seduction.
There is some more to say, but I will stop here. Hope this answer helps!
Speaking of anti-intellectual presidencies (or vice-presidencies), can you share some observations about Sarah Palin? What do you see as the essence of her magnetism?
I should add: I am an Alaskan who does not support Palin, and like most people I know, was absolutely appalled when McCain picked her. I haven't read your book but am curious about how your book relates to this and thought it would be fun to ask you this question 24 hours before a debate that I hope will shock and entertain us all.
I just watched the VP debate and heard Sean Hannity call it a spectacular "shock and awe" slamdunk performance on Palin's part. I have every reason to think that he meant it, the question is not if he was right, but why did he think what he did?
Sarah Palin was homey and likeable today, just like George Bush was in 2000. They even pronounce nu-cu-ler the same way. (Some) People felt that they connected with Palin probably because she reflected their locution and their ideas/values. I think if you already agreed with someone's core values, then it doesn't matter how someone says something; you were already sold at "Can I call you Joe?"
But, it is also worthwhile noting that of course Palin would excel in this debate format. There were no follow-up questions, and she was not forced to explain what she meant when she delivered sometimes ambiguous answers with some memorized punchline. Free to stray, she was able to let her personality come through as her principal mode of persuasion, not her logic.
Finally, let me add something about punchlines. These are wonderfully but insidiously effective rhetorical devices. They say something in code language to partisan audiences that generate their assent, but they do so in such ambiguous (often vacuous) language so that the other side cannot obviously articulate why they disagree. Freedom is great. Of course - until we realize that sometimes more freedom means less equality and there's the rub. But punchlines are designed to ellide the debate that ensues with more nuanced propositions. They end, rather than encourage debate, and the former is what most politicians want to do today in their cynical and transactional use of language. (I have more thoughts on the debate here: http://www.elvinlim.com/2008/10/paliln-stops-haemorrhage.html.)
Inadvertently or not, Sarah Palin has mastered some of the major tools of anti-intellectualism, the dark arts of demagoguery.
Thanks for that answer! The rhetoric of this election is both interesting and important. I look forward to reading more of your work.
Can we get Elvin and Gene Healy to talk? (http://www.librarything.com/talktopic.php?topic=46094) :)
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