The Language of Politics: Aristotle, Ronald Reagan, and Bernie Sanders

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Bernie Sanders at George Washington University: Reshaping America’s political language

M. Davout

In his book, The Politics, Aristotle expressed a famous claim that political science textbooks have been quoting for generations: man is by nature a political animal. Less appreciated has been Aristotle’s follow-up assertion that “man is the only animal that nature has endowed with the gift of speech, [which gift] is intended to set forth the advantageous and disadvantageous, the just and the unjust.”

With these claims Aristotle is reminding us that speech counts for a lot in politics. One need only consider how the language of politics in the post-New Deal, post-Great Society U.S. shifted so that it became a matter of course for millions of modest income Americans to vote for politicians who promised to cut, eliminate, or privatize government programs (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) that have kept so many vulnerable Americans from going under. Foundations such as the American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Richard Mellon Scaife Foundation provided financial support for scholars and pundits willing to make the libertarian argument for an every-man-for-himself society for which, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address, government is the problem, not the solution.

Funded by wealthy interests and individuals, these foundations and think tanks developed the rhetoric (e.g., “death tax” instead of “estate tax”) and ideas (e.g., cutting taxes increases government revenues) that would be picked up and propagated by conservative politicians across the country. Reagan himself, who began his national political career on the pundit side of conservative politics as a paid spokesman of General Electric giving speeches at GE plants across the country, paid homage to the decades-long conservative struggle to change the political conversation when he said, “The American Enterprise Institute stands at the center of a revolution of ideas of which I too have been a part…”

While it is too early confidently to guess which of the democratic contenders for the presidential nomination will face off against Trump, it is not too early to appreciate how much the speech of a certain senator from Vermont has changed the national conversation. Every time Bernie Sanders appears in public and speaks, whether at a televised debate, on a union picket line, on the stump in Iowa or New Hampshire, or on a college campus, his words serve to enlarge and invigorate the space of political discourse in this country. His relentlessly on-message campaign in 2016 for a $15-dollar-minimum (“living”) wage, Medicare-for-All, tuition-free public colleges and universities, highlighting global warming as an existential threat, a political revolution against a corrupt system, had discernible impacts in local, state and national races in 2018.  Consider as well the leftward policy positioning of several of his fellow candidates for the 2020 nomination; their language and positions often echo those of Sanders.

And while it is also too early to tell whether his recent speech at George Washington University successfully immunized the word, socialism, from the taboo status it has labored under in American political culture since at least the post-World War One Red Scare, Bernie Sanders’ evocation of FDR’s “Economic Bill of Rights” and his enlargement of the notion of being free to encompass having adequate health insurance, for example, or having access to a college education without sinking into paralyzing debt continues his crucial efforts to change the language of U.S. politics.

In helping to reshape the language of American politics, Bernie Sanders may go down in U.S. history as the presidential candidate who did not need to win to get his most important work done.

M. Davout, a professor of political science, teaches in the American South.

Bobby Kennedy and the Critical Realignment that Didn’t Happen

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M. Davout

Watching a documentary commemorating the fiftieth anniversary year of Robert Kennedy’s (RFK) tragic run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968, I couldn’t help thinking back to a venerable (if also somewhat moth-eaten) political science theory of critical realignment. This theory refers to a national election that radically and durably alters the balance of power in our two party system.

According to one iteration of that theory, these elections tend to occur on an approximately 36 year cycle of presidential elections and manifest in one of three ways: a new party displaces one of the two major parties (as when the Lincoln Republicans, calling for the containment of slavery, completed the dissolution of the Whig Party in 1860); a major party reinvigorates its dominance by mobilizing new and existing constituents around a fresh set of policy issues (as when the Republican Party ushered in a new period of electoral success with the 1896 election of the industrial protectionist McKinley); and when dominance switches between the two major parties (as when Franklin D. Roosevelt won overwhelmingly the first of his four presidential terms in 1932).

Key features of critical realignments include a crystallizing issue, heavy voter turnout, and major and durable shifts in voter allegiance. Political scientists have noted that this phenomenon seems to have petered out with the fracturing of FDR’s coalition in the Sixties. The election of 1968 did not see the emergence of a dominant new party (George Wallace’s success as a third party candidate that year was fleeting), nor did it witness either a renewal of Democratic dominance or a switch to long-term Republican Party dominance (control of the White House and Congress has instead oscillated between the two major parties).

Would the U.S. party system have experienced a critical realignment had Bobby Kennedy avoided assassination and won election as the thirty-seventh president of the United States? It is a question that occurred to me as I watched video footage taken from Kennedy’s funeral train of the people spontaneously gathered along the rail lines in big cities and small hamlets to pay last respects to their martyred candidate.

USA. 1968. Robert Kennedy funeral train.
Mourners await the RFK funeral train (1968)

As one of the Kennedy family friends riding that train noted, those forlorn folks represented Kennedy’s base—Catholics, people of color, blue collar workers, the poor.

Had he lived and gone on to run in the general election, he would have added to these groups the students and liberals who had flocked to Senator Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar candidacy, as well as the party bosses who were supporting the sitting vice-president Hubert Humphrey. And had he won the presidency in 1968 and made significant progress in achieving his stated goals—ending US military involvement in Vietnam, retooling LBJ’s efforts at poverty reduction, fostering a sense of solidarity among racial and generational groups—would that have been enough durably to boost voter turnout and cement loyalty to a more social justice-oriented Democratic Party for decades?

USA. 1968.  Robert KENNEDY funeral train.
Mourners await the RFK funeral train (1968)

A lot of “what ifs,” I know. But watching the stasis of American politics over the last decades in the face of mounting crises on both the domestic and international fronts, it is consoling to think of a possibility (however remote) of the critical realignment that could have been.

M. Davout, an occasional contributor to Bracing Views, teaches political science in the American South.