Saturday, September 1, 2012

Rhetoric: Platitudes

Politicians often say things that pretty much everyone agrees with. That is, they state platitudes. "We need to stop being divisive and unite the country" is one example.

Why do they say these things, if they're so obvious? Why spout a platitude if everyone already agrees with it and it doesn't distinguish you from your opponents?

Well, they probably it as a way of implicitly suggesting that their opponents don't agree, that their opponents reject what's obvious or something that most everyone else agrees with, that their opponents are ignorant of basic facts or maybe have sinister intentions.

But this is just a caricature, a distortion. We all want what's good, we just disagree on how the world works and what policies will do the best job of securing what's good, and on how to prioritize when two good things are in conflict.

Those are the tough, substantive issues that politicians should be giving us details about, instead of stating the obvious, and maybe implying that some people reject the obvious. Platitudes aren't productive.

We need a President who is serious – who will identify the enemy by name and do everything necessary to defeat it. The next few days will be sadly predictable. Democrats will try to use this attack to change the subject. As a matter of rigid ideology, far too many Democrats – from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton – will refuse to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ They will claim this attack, like they claimed every previous attack, was isolated and had nothing to do with the vicious Islamist theology that is daily waging war on us across the globe. And they will try to exploit this terror attack to undermine the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms of law-abiding Americans. Enough is enough. What we need is for every American – Democrat and Republican – to come together, abandon political correctness, and unite in defeating radical Islamic terrorism.
-- Sen. Ted Cruz, June 12, 2016, referring to the Orlando nightclub shooting by Omar Mir Seddique Mateen earlier that day.

Comment: First, this is "distraction" rhetoric. Second, Cruz is accusing Democrats of exploiting the shooting, but how? What is the evidence that it is Democrats – as opposed to Cruz or Republicans – are exploiting the issue? Finally, this is "unify the country" rhetoric. What, exactly, are we to unify on? Stopping terrorism? That's a platitude. Uniting on Cruz's plan to fight terrorism is more informative, but what if some people think it's not the best plan? Are they supposed to just give up their convictions for the sake of agreeing with Cruz?

"We believe that cooperation is better than conflict, unity is better than division, empowerment is better than resentment, and bridges are better than walls. It's a simple, but powerful idea. We believe that we are stronger together and the stakes in this election are high, and the choice is clear. Donald Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president and commander-in-chief. And he's not just trying to build a wall between America and Mexico, he's trying to wall off Americans from each other. When he says let's make America great again, that is code for, let's take America backwards."
-- Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, June 7, 2016, referring to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Much of this is platitudes: who doesn't believe that cooperation is better than conflict? The question is, how best to bring about cooperation rather than conflict? Also, Clinton is using "unify the country" rhetoric – and in parallel, accusing Trump of being divisive. Lastly, she is accusing Trump of using code words, but do people really want America to go backwards? Isn't that just demonizing? Don't they really just disagree about what's the best way to go forwards?

"I think the electorate would be better served if we spent less time focused on the he said/she said back-and-forth of our politics. Because while fairness is the hallmark of good journalism, false equivalency all too often these days can be a fatal flaw. If I say that the world is round and someone else says it's flat, that's worth reporting, but you might also want to report on a bunch of scientific evidence that seems to support the notion that the world is round."
-- President Barack Obama, March 28, 2016.

Comment: Put in these terms, it is a platitude to say that two sides of a dispute shouldn't necessarily be covered equally: anyone who says the Earth is flat is simple wrong. However, political disputes (which are frequently moral disputes) are seldom that easily resolved by scientific evidence. Is Obama making a "comparing" or "only my opponent" mistake in complaining about "false equivalence"?

"So often in the past there's been a sharp division between left and right, between capitalist and communist or socialist. And especially in the Americas, that's been a big debate, right? Oh, you know, you're a capitalist Yankee dog, and oh, you know, you're some crazy communist that's going to take away everybody's property. And I mean, those are interesting intellectual arguments, but I think for your generation, you should be practical and just choose from what works. You don't have to worry about whether it neatly fits into socialist theory or capitalist theory -- you should just decide what works."
-- President Barack Obama, March 23, 2016.

Comment: It is a platitude to say that people should do what works, that they should be pragmatists rather than ideologues. A believe about what "works" is none other than an ideology. Communists believe that centralized government control of the economy works; capitalists believe that free markets work. Given how complicated human behavior is, and how difficult it is to study, perhaps it's true that communist ideology is not 100% right or 100% wrong in its belief about what works, and perhaps the same is true of capitalism. But that doesn't mean abandoning ideology. Anyone who claims to be a pragmatist has to take a stand on what works; the moment they do, they have an ideology (i.e., an idea about how things should be done).

"Our next president has to be ready to face three big tasks: first, can you make positive differences in people's lives; second, can you keep us safe; third, can you bring our country together again?"
-- Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, March 15, 2016.

Comment: First, Clinton's tasks sound largely like platitudes: when has it not been the job of the president to make life better and more safe? Second, Clinton is using "unify the country" rhetoric, but she doesn't spell out what that means or how she would accomplish it (nor does she say when we were "together" in the past such that we need to be brought back there "again").

"I think it's imperative you do your very best, every president, and certainly, I will, to avoid military action. It should be the last resort, not the first choice, to use diplomacy, even if it's slow, boring, hard to continue to persist and be patient to get results."
-- Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, January 25, 2016, during the Democratic Presidential Candidates Town Hall Meeting, hosted by Chris Cuomo of CNN.

Comment: This is a platitude: everyone believes military action should be the last resort (or at least not the first choice) when it comes to foreign policy. Clinton seems to be caricaturing her opponents (it's not clear if it's her Democratic or Republican opponents), suggesting that their first response to a foreign policy challenge will be to use military force.

"But what I would say to my successor is that it is important not just to shoot but to aim, and it is important in this seat to make sure that you are making your best judgments based on data, intelligence, the information that's coming from your commanders and folks on the ground, and you're not being swayed by politics."
-- President Barack Obama, from an interview released December 21, 2015.

Comment: This is a platitude: who supports "shooting without aiming", or "being swayed by politics" (whatever that means)?

"And so the question we’ve got to keep asking ourselves is, where do we go from here? Because we still have choices. Will we drift toward an economy where only a few of us do very well and everybody else is still scrabbling, struggling to get by? That’s not the right way to do it. Or will we keep working towards an economy where everybody who works hard has a chance to succeed? And over the next year and a half, you’re going to hear a lot of pitches from a lot of people -- they’re going to deny that any progress has been made. You’ll hear a lot of folks trying to sell you on their vision of where our country should go. They’re going to be making a whole bunch of stuff up. And when I say a lot of stuff, I mean a lot of stuff. We’ve got some healthy competition in the Democratic Party, but I’ve lost count of how many Republicans are running for this job."
-- President Barack Obama, July 2, 2015.

Comment: First, it's a platitude to say we should have an economy that works for everyone. Everybody wants that, but there's a disagreement about which policies will achieve that goal. Second, Obama accuses Republicans of "making stuff up" without noting that Democrats (including Obama himself) are guilty of the same behavior. That is, Obama is indulging in the "only my opponent" caricature.

The argument Stewart and Stephanopoulos were throwing out–we’re dramatically under-investing in America’s cities–is liberal claptrap. … We’re spending an enormous amount of money on a system that isn’t producing, and it’s liberal interest groups (e.g., education unions) and the Democratic Party that are ferocious opponents of the kind of reforms that would improve American education. … For all their self-proclaimed compassion, liberals and liberalism are, in important respects, doing significant damage to the young people in America, and most especially to the most vulnerable in our midst. Messrs. Stewart and Stephanopoulos don’t seem to realize this, but they should. Because human lives should take priority over political ideology.
-- Pundit Peter Wehner, April 29, 2015. His comments concerned an interview of ABC News' George Stephanopoulos by Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.

Comment: Wehner is accusing Stewart and Stephanopoulos of being ideologues, and demonizing them by saying the care more about ideology than people. It's a platitude to say that human lives count more than ideology.

"In a world changing even faster than his, do we retreat from the realities of a 21st century economy? Or do we continue to advance, together, to renew this country’s founding promise of opportunity for everybody and not just some?"
-- President Barack Obama, March 18, 2015.

Comment: This is a platitude. Who doesn't want opportunity for everybody? The question is what set of policies will bring about that result.

"The main point here that I think everybody needs to understand is the president is about to make a very bad deal. He clearly doesn’t want Congress involved in it at all, and we’re worried about it. We don’t think he ought to make a bad deal with one of the worst regimes in the world."
-- Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), March 15, 2015. His remarks concern a letter sent by 47 Republican senators to Iran's leaders, declaring that the US Senate might not support an agreement made by President Barack Obama regarding Iran's nuclear program.

Comment: This is a platitude. Who on Earth does want to make a bad deal with one of the worst regimes in the world?

"In America, we believe that a lifetime of hard work and responsibility should be rewarded with a shot at a secure, dignified retirement. … we’ve got more work to do to make sure that our recovery reaches more Americans, not just those at the top. That’s what middle-class economics is all about—the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everybody does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."
-- President Barack Obama, February 28, 2015, during the weekly presidential address.

Comment: These remarks by Obama on fairness seem to involve either platitudes or "Americans want" rhetoric.

"So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes. I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. … Imagine if we did something different. Understand, a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine. A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears. A better politics is one where we debate without demonizing each other; where we talk issues and values, and principles and facts, rather than “gotcha” moments, or trivial gaffes, or fake controversies that have nothing to do with people’s daily lives. … If we’re going to have arguments, let’s have arguments, but let’s make them debates worthy of this body and worthy of this country."
-- President Barack Obama, January 20, 2015, during the 2015 State of the Union address.

Comment: Again, this is another call to set a higher standard of political discussion, and to uphold civility and civil debate. But such a call is a platitude unless you give specifics about how it is we're supposed to be civil to one another. What concrete examples of demonizing does Obama think should be stopped? Will Obama admit to any instances of demonizing his opponents? Or does he think that it's only his opponents who resort to demonizing?

"It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years and for decades to come. Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort? Will we approach the world fearful and reactive, dragged into costly conflicts that strain our military and set back our standing? Or will we lead wisely, using all elements of our power to defeat new threats and protect our planet? Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another? Or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?"
-- President Barack Obama, January 20, 2015, during the 2015 State of the Union address.

Comment: These are platitudes. Of course people want an economy where everyone does well, a foreign policy that wisely manages conflicts, and a nation where people work together productively. The problem is that people have very different ideas about how to achieve those goals.


Examples from 2012.

"Now, here's the point: These are serious times. And what's required by all of us, Democrats and Republicans, is to do what's right for our country, even if it's not always what's best for our politics. … Our future shouldn't be shaped by what's best for our politics. Our politics should be shaped by what's best for our future. … Bipartisanship, not for its own sake, but to solve problems, that's what our constituents, the American people, need from us right now. All of us, then, have a choice to make. We have to choose whether we're going to be politicians first or partners for progress, whether we're going to put success at the polls ahead of the lasting success we can achieve together for America."
-- President Barack Obama, January 29, 2010, at the GOP House Issues Conference.

Comment: Everyone believes that we should do what's right for the country, even if it's not best for the party, that's just a platitude. The disagreement lies in what policies are right for the country. The parties have different ideas about that, not about whether we should put country ahead of party. And of course we all agree that we should do what's best for our future, and be bipartisan for the sake of achieving good things (not just bipartisan for the sake of saying we're bipartisan). Is Obama suggesting that some people -- I assume, Republicans -- don't share these beliefs and ideals?

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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