Friday, January 29, 2010

A Kresta Political Principle – “The Impossibility of Supporting the Contrary”

The Impossibility of Supporting the Contrary
Al Kresta

“We need to export more of our goods. (Applause.) Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America. (Applause.).”

What person in his right mind could disagree with President Obama’s words? And that’s the problem with so much political speech. Statements which admit of no objection are a staple of political rhetoric. While they serve the purpose of establishing the speaker’s common sense and general appeal, they are meaningless as policy statements. They are good for pep rallies and campaign stops but of little use in actually governing or legislating.

What I am about to describe is a handy little analytical tool to help you sort through the increasing amount of political verbiage that beckons, assaults or seduces us from cable newstalk programs, blogolas, the explosion of printed political tracts masquerading as books and celebrity quips posing as profound civic insight.

It’s the rhetorical trick I describe as “the impossibility of supporting the contrary.” Here’s another example from President Obama’s State of the Union message. This time he is intent on improving our schools. “Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform -- reform that raises student achievement; inspires students to excel in math and science; and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans... (Applause.).” How nice. I was under the impression that we should undermine our schools by rewarding failure, penalizing success and implementing reform that lowers student achievement. Inspire students? Heck no, I thought a teacher worked to demotivate them and that school boards should just leave failing schools to steal the future of as many young Americans as possible. See what I mean? It’s impossible to support the contrary of what the President affirms.

He is not doing anything unusual. I can’t think of any politician who doesn’t talk like this. Conservatives as well as liberals, Republicans and Democrats, Libertarians and Independents- none carry immunities from this disease of the tongue. If you think that any partisan escapes, point him out so I name the beast for he’s in no jungle or zoo I’m visiting. Better send me a YouTube video. In the interest of bi-partisanship let me turn right. Remember the standard conservative promise to give us a government that won’t stifle entrepreneurship. Oh, really. How helpful. I guess liberals really want a government that will suffocate entrepreneurship, huh?. Or another common conservative line: “I stand for a strong national defense.” Oh, that’s strange; personally, I thought you wanted a weak national defense. Thanks for clearing that up.

One of my favorites was the phrase, “compassionate conservatism” as though conservatives with heart had been in short supply and a new generation was confessing its superiority to who??? Uncompassionate conservatives? I guess, although I can’t seem to find any who want to claim the adjective. When “compassionate conservatism” finally settled into legislation it became what? A program to subsidize the cost of prescription drugs for the elderly that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2006. Agree or disagree, at least, the policy could be disputed in a way that “compassionate conservatism” never could.

If a political statement or campaign promise can’t possibly find disagreement with a sane person then it is meaningless for policy purposes. These used to be called ‘motherhood’ or ‘apple pie’ statements because only a person of perverse ways would deny the goodness of ‘motherhood’ or ‘apple pie.’ These wholesome words are not in and of themselves meaningless. Affirming motherhood is socially useful and theologically sound. Loving apple pie needs no justification. But they, like rewarding success, inspiring students and improving education, don’t present any real policy over which we can fight, debate, or vote. Sometimes ‘motherhood’ type phrases can become encoded with very clear policy DNA: pro-life vs. pro-choice, for instance, has come to represent a real conflict over abortion policy although everybody is pro-life and pro-choice in the generic sense. But this is the exception.

These wooly, warm but inconstestable statements must be coupled with practical suggestions if we expect to move our political discussion along and arrive at some solutions for the fiscal and security threats we face. The loss of trust in many of our institutions isn’t something that can be restored by vacuous words from which no one can dissent. We must have proposals that generate vigorous disputes and fruitful disagreement. Problems can be solved once we insist on more than these verbal salves that flow so smoothly from elected lips.

President Obama gave us a good example Wednesday night when discussing energy policy.: “[T]o create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives” (Yawn)…But then he takes a turn to concrete policy: “And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. (Applause.) It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development.” Hooray! Regardless of whether or not you want a future fueled by nuclear power or offshore drilling you at least know that this is a meaningful proposal. Why? Because it is possible to support the contrary and oppose nuclear power plants or offshore drilling and not be insane.

So remember: when any politician speaks words which suggest the impossibility of supporting the contrary, just enjoy the thought of your mother and suspend your approval and support until he gives you something actionable that even your mother would have recognized as worth arguing about.

1 comment:

  1. This is probably the main reason why I don't listen to political speeches. They're boring. Why would anyone waste their time listening to empty rhetoric, even if it soars? I've never found it inspirational.

    That being said, Al, you should have given the full context of the quote you cite. That quote from the speech was one part of a series of reforms Obama wants to make. Obama set up this part of the speech with the sentence:

    "As hard as it may be, as uncomfortable and contentious as the debates may become, it's time to get serious about fixing the problems that are hampering our growth."

    Yes, Al, that's a vapid statement. But I bet you've made similar statements about evangelization.

    Anyway, Obama goes on to tell us what reforms he wants to make.

    1. Financial reform
    2. American innovation
    3. Increase exports
    4. Invest in people skills
    5. Refinancing for homeowners
    6. Health insurance reform

    You cite the first two sentences for the third reform, increasing exports. Here's the full context:

    "Third, we need to export more of our goods. Because the more products we make and sell to other countries, the more jobs we support right here in America. So tonight, we set a new goal: We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support 2 million jobs in America. To help meet this goal, we're launching a national export initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security.

    "We have to seek new markets aggressively, just as our competitors are. If America sits on the sidelines while other nations sign trade deals, we will lose the chance to create jobs on our shores. But realizing those benefits also means enforcing those agreements so our trading partners play by the rules. And that's why we'll continue to shape a Doha trade agreement that opens global markets, and why we will strengthen our trade relations in Asia and with key partners like South Korea and Panama and Colombia."

    This is not detailed enough for me, but there's more to it than Al suggested.