Monday, October 29, 2012

Mr. Florea's Question: On the Death of Intellectual Honesty Among Candidates

"Knight, Death, and the Devil" by Albrecht Dürer (1513)
 Mr. Josh Florea of the Great State of Tennessee asks:
I'm curious your thoughts on the trend recently of people taking single sentences completely out of context and running with it as an attack regardless of if the broader point jives or not. This lack of intellectual honesty and the apparent inability of many Americans to comprehend thoughts that require more than a soundbite's worth of words seems distressing and frustrating.
Well, first, I want to say I have rewritten my answer to this question several times already.  I find myself getting upset and just spewing my emotion in response.

I hold myself to a higher standard than that.

So I took a deep breath, leaned forward, and started typing again - and this is what I think, not what I feel.  Mostly.

Rhetoric is a tool, a weapon, something that adds weight to argument and opinion and facts, not to mention lies, as a means of directing the hearer or reader thereof towards a particular conclusion.  As such, in the hands of one who is both ethical and properly informed, rhetoric is a good; it seeks not to mislead or manipulate, but to give structure and develop relationships; it seeks not to obfusicate,  but to make things transparent and more easily understood. 

The problem, of course, is that rhetoric in fact can be used immorally or irresponsibly.  In my opinion, Mr. Florea, that is precisely the phenomenon you are describing in your question. Political leaders and factions in the United States have begun to put their immediate ends - that of gaining or retaining office - over the Union's long-term ends - good government based on the stewardship of an ethical and well-informed elite overseen by an ethical and well-informed general population. 


Alright, the time for sighing is over.  How shall we deal with this?  I have some notions - feel free to hate or love or be indifferent to each of these.  If there is an overall theme, by the by, it is this: we need to make elections about content.  This means shifting from running for office to sitting for office and it means creating a responsible electorate.

First, make the Senate an appointed body again, or at least half of the seats.  Remove the motivation to engage in rhetoric for the purpose of retaining one's seat and a great deal will whither away.

Second, limit the president to a single term - with no chance of reelection the president, once in office, similarly loses many of the motivations to engage in rhetoric.

Third, constitutionally bar corporations and foreign nationals from donating money to campaigns.

Fourth, end the system of "debates" and replace them with nightly panels in which the nominees discuss very particular issues with specifically chosen experts from relevant private sector, nonproft, public, and academic organizations.  The panels should be hours long, made available for public review instantly online at the government's expense.  Specifically, there should be panels on each of the fundamental regions of the United States and their particular woes (New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the Southeast, Appalachia, the Deep South, Florida, the Upper Midwest, the Lower Midwest, Texas, the Southwest, California, the Northwest, the Rocky Mountain states, and the Outlying States and Territories), as well as panels that are subject oriented (environmental politics, women's rights, education, civil rights, infrastructure, the budget, healthcare and aging, corporate rights and regulation, electoral rights, veteran's rights, military affairs, international affairs, ethics, immigration, and so forth).

Fifth, candidates should be pressured by their constituents into making a "no television, radio, or billboard ads" pledge in recognition of the limited ability to do more than raise hackles using these mediums.

Sixth, the United States should end all public funding of campaigns, which favors the existing parties and is fundamentally unethical.

Seventh, we have to repair our educational system - this means a lot of things, including but not limited to: more teachers relative to students (smaller class sizes); substantially higher wages and benefits for teachers; investment in critical physical education infrastructure (classrooms, libraries, and laboratories); funding rationales that are based upon the political-economic and social characteristics of the locality in question rather than regressive policies; a reemphasis on the means of acquiring and analyzing knowledge systematically; the replacement of elected school boards with mixed school boards in which elected officials are a minority and in which academics, both from the school systems themselves and from higher education, have the bulk of the power (particularly in the area of curriculum development); a reemphasis on reading, writing, arthimatic, logic, foreign languages, the arts (including rhetoric), and science with historical and political education starting later but being far more intensive and extensive and focusing on source documents (that is to say a reiteration of the liberal arts ethic); simple, strict disciplinary policies; the adoption of remedial, pre-freshman years at most colleges and universities until the public schools are once again accomplishing the minimum level of preparation; an immediate freeze on tuition rates with the adoption of campaigns to roll them back whenever possible and a deemphasis on spending on non-academic programs whenever necessary to accomplish this. 

Eighth, greater governmental and candidate transparency of virtually every type is necessary.  This requires moral integrity on the part of candidates, but on the part of the government it means the adoption of laws that make censorship, classification, and secret meetings far more strictly enforced, far briefer in length, and punishable if it is demonstrably self-interested rather than publically-interested.

Ninth, citizens should be self-organizing groups that discuss politics, not merely responding to current issues (which they should be well-informed on), but also reading the great works of both Western and non-Western political philosophy and thought. (Bare minimum? Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, the Federalist Papers, and of course the Constitution - oh, and you can read them all for free - oh, oh, and these are the start, not the finish).

Tenth, citizens who are members of political parties need to write their party leadership and the candidates and tell them they expect better.  Candidates need to know their own voters demand more and are going to start favoring, especially at the pre-election and primary phases, candidates who use their words thoughtfully and not rhetorically.

Eleventh - the states, or at least as many of them as possible, should shift from primary elections to caucuses, making their respective caucuses take place at approximately the same time, and then culminating at a national caucus.

This, I would say, is a start.  It isn't enough.  But it is a beginning.  The one thing I would say is that we shouldn't begin regulating first amendment rights lightly.  Why?

Well, I support the First Amendment in the same way I support the Second Amendment: words and guns are both dangerous, but I distrust everyone equally, so I want an institutional arrangement that compensates for the effects.  But equally, I assume that trying to eliminate the causes of violence, literal or functional, doesn't work - that is totalitarianism, and as my hero the good Mr. James Madison wrote, the cure in this case is far worse than the disease. 

Post-Script - Is there rhetoric here?  Yes sir, or ma'am, there is - I am a well-read, relatively well-spoken man and as such, frankly, it is rather unavoidable.  But I hope that, to use Mr. Florea's phrase, it is intellectually honest. Apologies to you if you disagree.


  1. Agree! The one nuance I've added to the one-term presidency over the years is that it might need to be a 5- or 6-year term to compensate for the necessary turnover effect during the first year as well as the legacy effect in the last. And as a rhetoric teacher, I must say, I approve this message!

    1. Fantastic! Your approval is noted and counter-approved! Also, I have thought about the additional year or two and could be convinced. Probably. Definitely. Probably.

  2. I've been thinking about this post and the question for the last few days, when I suddenly remembered a great article that I recently read in Time magazine. The cover held big letters that said: "Election 2012: What Would Lincoln Do?". I was intrigued. The whole article was informative/intriguing, but one thing the author goes on to note is that, as disheartened as we might feel about the current trend of people taking single sentences out of context, it isn't anything new to the political game. Even the 16th president had to deal with it. "Anyone who thinks the risk of a gaffe is something new in the lives of Presidents should listen to Lincoln. Newspapers were so eager to bend his language that he learned to ration his speeches in self-defense and thus mastered the art of the extremely short yet powerful address-- like the one at Gettysburg". This is where Lincoln said: "In my present position it is hardly proper for me to make speeches. Every word is so closely noted that it will not do to make trivial ones". So I believe, that while Dr. Smith has proposed a remarkable alternative solution to this problem, in the meantime there is still hope... as long as those of us remain who ask for more. [David Von Drehle: Time Magazine; November 5, 2012].


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