The 2008 election season is thankfully behind us, and it was the costliest election ever. While future elections might always be costlier than the one before – after all, costs for advertising and campaign travel go up each year – this one didn’t just exceed the Bush/Kerry election outlay of 2004, it shattered it, largely due to the unprecedented contributions to, and spending by, the Obama campaign.
Now that the election is over, we can look forward to a respite from the verbal assault that we were bombarded with from both parties. In the real world, repeated use of words and phrases can get old – after all, who wants to hear the same joke 20 times in one week? Like a football team that finds a set of plays that work and then runs them over and over, the political advertising community has locked on to certain phrases they use with abandon. Many of the word choices are emotionally overwrought for a reason – fear and anger are powerful emotions and play an important role in getting large numbers of people to vote. Here are a few words or phrases I suggest we should retire from the political field of play.
The first is “Extreme” , or variations thereof. My rule of thumb has now become that if Candidate A says that Candidate B is “extreme” in his/her views, then I assume Candidate A thinks I’m an idiot. Just as words can wear out with overuse, so too can they cease to be meaningful when used incorrectly. If a candidate from the Republican or Democratic Party is really “extreme”, then what word do we use for real extremists? What word would we then use to describe people who are absolute in their positions, statistically miniscule in number, and prone to violence?
Another common term we hear is “Working Families”. Every candidate seems to be in favor of helping working families, while they accuse their opponent as being against working families. The corollary of working families is “Middle Class”. Statistics have repeatedly shown that the vast majority of Americans refer to themselves as members of the middle class, whether they are or not. It appeals to a national ethos that unfavorably views poverty on one end, and aristocracy on the other. Since most people view themselves as part of the middle class, and since virtually every family has or wants to have one or more members in the workforce, then we are unceasingly subjected to commercials and mailings talking about how the candidates care about “Working Families”.
However, when someone says they are staunchly for something, such as working families, then there’s an unspoken argument about what they’re fighting against. After all, in politics the key is to reduce complexity to simplicity, and create an “us versus them” dynamic which will drive people to the polls. In 1980, the narrative was that working families needed to fear welfare queens and others who exploited the unemployment system for their benefit. Today’s narrative is that the working families are being victimized by “The Rich”, which is another term which should be put in the political penalty box due to misuse.
The “rich” are set up for particular scorn since they serve as a convenient villain in the recent financial meltdown, although they were routinely demonized in elections well before the current troubles, usually from the left. Regarding the mortgage crisis and resulting financial implosion, it’s an election season, so voters’ fragile ears are protected from any messages regarding their own culpability. Why point out that consumer borrowing habits are part of the problem when you can simply paint a caricature of a Wall Street tycoon who is raking it in at the expense of working families?
The final problem of “the rich” during election season is that they are used as a foil to make arguments about taxes, and these arguments are frequently divorced from facts. According to IRS data from the 2006 tax year, which is the most recent data available, the top 12% of taxpayers paid 74% of the income taxes. This data doesn’t slow down the campaign machines from spooning out their message about “the rich” not paying their “fair share”, nor does it prevent large swaths of voters from lapping it up without question.
There are other juicy targets which should be consigned to the ashbin of political rhetoric, such as “Big Oil” (the government generally makes more money at the pump than oil companies) and “Outrage” (if someone says they’re “outraged”, they’re not really outraged – they’re just making an argument along with a helping of self-righteousness). In the end, we get what we deserve. Hyperbole unfortunately works with enough people that we will hear more of the same in the foreseeable future. Many local congressional elections are notable for their excreable commercials.
For now, however, there is silence in the political air, and that is a sound we can all enjoy.
Published November, 2008 immediately following Obama vs McCain election.