Voices

Orwellian noises

Why mindless talking points dominate the national political debate

Issue: "Terrorism: Unmasked men," Oct. 16, 2004

Immediately after every presidential debate, the media adjourns to the "Spin Room." Here, representatives from both sides enthusiastically explain why their candidate won. The designated spinners would say that, of course, no matter how the candidate actually did.

The television reporters who interview the spinners know they are not getting information or thoughtful opinion, just a prepackaged, predictable spiel, but they dutifully go through the motions anyway. The reporters are cynical about it-and the spinners may well be too-but everyone realizes this is just how campaigns are run these days.

Today's television interviews are shaped by a fairly recent technique in campaign management: the "Talking Point Memo." To make sure that everyone involved in the campaign is "on message," the campaign office sends out "talking points," sometimes as often as every day, to all of the campaign workers and spokesmen. These include rebuttals of the latest accusations from the other side, statistics to make the candidate's policies look good and the other side look bad, and themes of the day, to highlight whatever the campaign wants to emphasize at that particular moment.

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Notice in the political talk shows how few of the campaign spokespinners answer the questions. Q.: "Were the forged memos part of a dirty-tricks campaign against the president?" A: "Tax cuts for the rich have created a real crisis in healthcare." Instead of getting a discussion of the issues, we get talking points.

Both sides do it. Both sides also have advocates who do not do it. But much political discourse has degenerated to the state described by George Orwell in his classic 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language": "One often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them."

"A speaker who just repeats the same preprogrammed phrases," Orwell says, "has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself."

What lies behind the talking points? Why do people-including both those who write and parrot the talking point memos and the public at large-hold the political beliefs that they do?

A person's deep-down political beliefs may come from simple self-interest, with social workers and union members thinking their lot would be better under a Democrat and tax-oppressed small businessmen putting their hopes with a Republican. Beliefs might be shaped by the peer pressure exerted within a particular subculture, whether of the faculty lounge in a university or a country club in suburbia. They sometimes arise, rightly or wrongly, out of noble ideals: a concern for the poor turning a person liberal, or a love of liberty and a fear of big government turning a person conservative. Some people's beliefs are shaped by their own personal history; the 1960s, for example, turned some people into pacifists and others into "moral majority" culture warriors.

On the deepest level, political beliefs are shaped by values and by worldview. Those who are appalled at the holocaust of abortion will tend to vote for conservatives. Conversely, some liberals admit that their politics are determined by their desire to keep abortion legal, which they construe as preserving their sexual freedom. What people believe about sin, progress, the American heritage, the purpose of government, and the purpose of life itself will also manifest itself in their politics.

People tend to vote out of their beliefs, not for talking point reasons, or even because a particular candidate has some clever practical ideas for solving some problem. The ideology behind the issues is what is most important. It would be helpful if these underlying assumptions and worldview issues could be brought out in the open and made a part of the debate.

Unfortunately, there is another group of people who seem to have no ideology. With their short attention spans and intellectual apathy, these people allow their politics to be swayed by the feeling of the moment. This is the demographic group that causes the opinion polls to vacillate from day to day. These are the people targeted by the talking points. And on Nov. 2, depending on their mood on that one day, they will decide the election.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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