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For all its insistence on plain-talking, Palin’s candidacy was defined by doublespeak from beginning to end. McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis declared after her nomination that the election would no longer be “about issues” but was now “about personalities”, a claim based on a mystification of what “issue” means. Elections will always be about issues, by definition. No one remarked upon the nonsensical nature of the statement, because “issue” had become shorthand for “policy”, or even governance, and this consensual meaning worked to obscure Davis’ intent. What he meant was that he wanted the election to be argued over personalities instead of policy, while at the same time implying that personalities are not “issues” and thus working to normalise the identity politics at the heart of his campaign strategy.
But language kept getting in the way. When McCain tried to undermine Obama’s position on abortion in the final debate, for example, he did so by suggesting that Obama’s “eloquence” was suspect: “I admire so much Senator Obama’s eloquence – you really have to pay attention to words”. He then tried to undermine Obama’s position on abortion by suggesting in shorthand that the health of the mother was a euphemism for voluntary or even frivolous abortions. He did this by putting the mother’s “health” into scare quotes, incensing a great part of the electorate by suggesting that the mother’s health is a risible justification for abortion. McCain’s language was too reductive, too redacted and ultimately over-encoded, pulled apart by conflicting meanings. Obama’s “eloquence” was, in fact, itself plain-speaking: according to the Global Language Monitor, which used quantitative analysis to track the political language of the campaign, in the final debate Obama spoke at a ninth-grade reading level, while McCain spoke at a seventh-grade level. According to the company’s Chief Word Analyst, Paul Payack, “Evidently, Obama is at his best at connecting with people at the 7th to 8th grade range, communicating directly to his audience using simple yet
powerful rhetorical devices”.
But perhaps the most revealing moment of the campaign, linguistically speaking, came when McCain announced on the day that the world markets crashed that the “fundamentals of the American economy are strong”, and then tried to recover his credibility by insisting that by “fundamentals” he meant “workers”. The reason, presumably, that this attempt at redefinition failed after so many successful Republican re-branding exercises is that it has no metonymic logic behind it: the two words do not share what linguists call a ‘radial category’, which is to say meanings that radiate out in associative chains. The words are too far apart, their meanings too distinct. The gap between what he said and what he claimed to mean was too wide, and he fell into it. Trying to fish him out, Palin announced impatiently in an interview not long afterwards that his meaning was clear, and that the “verbage” wasn’t important. In the New Yorker, James Wood noted that this neologism was like garbage, but not like language. But it is precisely like language, only not quite a word, suggesting the collective appurtenances of words without quite being one. It turned out that verbage did, indeed, matter. By keeping his language consistent and clear, and finding the line between simple and simplistic, Obama reminded America that meaning does inhere in language, and that postmodern politics cannot jettison the fundamentals of communication.
Like any ideological war, the culture wars are discursive rather than military. (The ‘War on Terror’, it could be argued, is misguided in so far as it has confused the two). In fact, the evacuation of meaning from language is a symptom not of vocabulary but of ideology. It is ideology, as Slavoj Žižek has argued, that becomes a floating signifier, detached from meaning, and necessarily multiplying meanings. You don’t have to be a Marxist to see the way that ideology is based upon, and works to obscure, class antagonism: the US election is evidence enough of that. Describing the effects of modern democracy on presidential politics, the remarkable journalist H.L. Mencken wrote in 1920:
The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre – the man who can most easily adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.
The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and
the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
It seemed to many that Mencken’s prediction had come true with the election of George W. Bush. But in her failure to frighten sufficient numbers of Americans into believing they needed a hockey mom to save them from the liberals under the bed, Sarah Palin showed that if the plain folks of the land would tolerate a moron, they would not, finally, vote for an oxymoron.
Sarah Churchwell is a senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia, and the author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (Granta).
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