The Plain, ‘Popular’ Speaking Of Bernie Sanders And Jeremy Corbyn

One of the highlights of the recent Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn campaigns–one, a failed attempt to secure the nomination to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and the other a comparatively successful attempt by the Labour Party to derail the Tories in the United Kingdom–has been their plain speaking. Both Sanders and Corbyn relied on straightforward ‘messaging’; they spoke unapologetically about their political views and vision; they did not back down from supposedly ‘can’t-win’ electoral platforms; they did not waffle about or ‘triangulate. Wonder of wonders, they seemed perfectly cognizant of the fact that they would face political opposition, but that did not deter them from continuing to discuss and defend, in unvarnished terms, the democratic socialist and populist ‘agenda’ that was the centerpiece of their claim to become President or Prime Minister. If asked ‘Are you really saying that X?’–where X might be ‘taxing the rich’ or ‘supporting the Palestinian cause’ or ‘socialized healthcare’–the Sanders or Corbyn response, quite typically, was, “Why yes, that’s exactly what I meant, and here’s why.” (In sporting terms, Sanders and Corbyn decided to swing for the fences–rather than sitting on them. Perhaps they would lose; but they would only lose an election, not their integrity. They appeared prepared to pay that price.)

This plain-speaking, this directness, this unapologetic standing by and behind their political convictions, a rare species of political fearlessness, did not go unnoticed. Both Sanders and Corbyn attracted many young folk disenchanted–or just plain bored–by politics; they attracted many older folks turned off by the endlessly vacillating, weaselly language of conventional politics. By keeping their platforms simple, Sanders and Corbyn were not just comprehensible, they also managed to be inspiring. Years and years of being subjected to the inanity and indirection of political discourse has produced a diverse electorate that yearns for plain speaking and a kind of transparent, even if occasionally bumbling, sincerity. Sanders and Corbyn both ‘delivered’; neither are inspiring speakers; their prose is not lofty; they do not appear to have taken classes in oratory or rhetoric; but importantly, they did not appear ‘coached’ and bland and inoffensive either. They knew they would cause offense; they accepted such a cost as part of the price of doing politics, of trying to get a certain kind of message out and about. They also knew the rhetorical value of their manner of speaking.

It will remain an enduring scandal that the Democratic Party in the US could not quite see the wisdom of such plain speaking during the 2016 election season, and instead decided to throw its weight behind a candidate who could not bring herself to drop a language that appeared too cautious, too timid, too ready to compromise. Neither could the Labour Party in the United Kingdom; many of its members and leaders attacked Corbyn relentlessly in the lead-up to the election. In the US, we are left saddled with the dysfunctional presidency of Donald Trump; in the United Kingdom, a second election to resolve the uncertainty created by the unstable Tory-DUP coalition seems quite likely. One can only wonder what the political landscape would look like today if these candidates had not been sabotaged by their own parties.

There are lessons to be learned here; the politician who makes the effort to do so knows an attentive audience–and participants in political action–awaits.

Against Political Speeches, For Political Speech

I’m not sure why I dislike political speeches. By ‘political speeches’ I do not mean ‘political speech’: I am in favor of the latter, the more the better, with some caveats having to do with–among others–Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Karl Rove, Bill O’Reilly, and Sarah Palin. Rather, by ‘political speeches,’ I mean, quite precisely, speeches given by a politician–a party animal, to be exactingly precise–at some political forum: a post-election rally (for victory or concession), a party convention, a campaign rally; these remain resolutely inaccessible to me, a movie show that I can’t sit through. (This definition, should, I hope, make clear that certain species of political speeches in public fora remain impervious to my criticism.)

Along with this dislike goes indifference to political speech hagiography, the admiring dissection of speeches, which elevates them to the level of rhetorical masterpieces. Consider, for instance, Robert Lehrman on Obama’s victory speech on the night of 6th November, comparing it to the 2008 post-election victory speech:

[T]he 2012 model showed all the strengths that Obama and his speechwriters consistently exhibit, producing the best drafts of any president. He used concrete details and repetition (“You’ll hear the determination in the voice of a young field organizer who’s working his way through college … You’ll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who’s going door to door…”); antithesis and echoes of John F. Kennedy (“America’s never been about what can be done for us; it’s about what can be done by us together”) and stories that have the ring of truth (“And I saw it just the other day in Mentor, Ohio, where a father told the story of his 8-year-old daughter…”). You also see flashes of wit (“one dog’s probably enough”), and the skillful use of pause, emphasis and variety of tone that makes public speaking teachers like me use him as a model for students. [link in original]

That last sentence reminds me that perhaps the best thing about a ‘good political speech’ these days is that it might serve as a model for those trying to become better public speakers: high-school or college students aspiring to debate club membership, teachers themselves, budding actors, Toastmasters clubs, interviewees, and so on. But I don’t think they shouldn’t copy or emulate everything they see and hear.

Most prominently, because, like almost anyone disillusioned by political speeches in electoral democracies, I see them as heralds of betrayal and disappointment to follow. They are all too often infected by too many promises, too much insincere wheedling. The political speech, now, in this landscape of relentless electioneering, has come to stand for misleading obfuscation, one that serves to obscure the truly political behind a veil of elegant wordsmithing.  This is not necessarily because the speaker–the party political animal, remember–is extraordinarily mendacious, rather it is because he or she is made to appear as a figurehead that misrepresents the forces that are all too often arrayed against those subjected to the speech.

The speech then, comes to serve as beguiling distraction, and not just rallying cry.