Calhoun’s Cannons for October 12, 2012
Unlike the previous debate, Joltin’ Joe, the Veep, at least showed up wide awake. O.K., he grinned far too much, which, on the split screen made his wide flashing of enormous teeth look almost maniacal. But he was scrappy and awake and in pit bull mode and soon had his opponent skittered into silence.
Which was about the only place Paul Ryan could go. Youthful earnest vagueness and meaningless political clichés are no match for an old guy talking about actual realities on real ground. So advantage almost always goes to incumbents who can bring to the game a real sense of how cliché gets trumped when it goes from a tidy sound bite into a messy reality.
And if there’s one thing that makes our PAC-run, TV-fake, hyped-up, poll-driven political campaigns so fatuously destructive it’s this: Cliché and sound bites and FrankLuntz talking points stop all thought cold. That’s what they’re designed to do – hit the amygdala, shut the rational brain down, juice up the adrenaline, stop complex thought. But what then goes missing when its needed most are the “what-ifs” and the “then-whats” that are required in order to follow the cliché down the rabbit hole to track how it will play out in the real world.
And the Veep debate was particularly interesting to me because there was a real contrast between young Ryan spouting neat, clean clichés and Biden who brought in his messy sack of history to show how things really work – We did this, then we had to do that because this went ker-blooey, so then we had to figure out how to do that. All of which repeatedly brought home how buzz words simply hide a constantly shifting bag of snakes and surprises. Realpolitiks.
Bags of snakes and surprises and logical and unintended consequences is why voters really need to get their own heads out of the clichés fed to them by the political strategists and insist their representatives track down those rabbit holes. They can start by becoming semanticists and constantly ask: “What, exactly, do you mean by that word? Be specific and please illustrate how that would play out in real time.”
For example, in an effort to make themselves seem tough, Romney and Ryan – the dynamic duo of Warrior Princes -- have been beating the war drum clichés about preventing Iran from getting the bomb or showing “leadership” in the middle east. O.K., fair enough. That’s what candidates do. And a mostly unified world is also concerned about Iran and the killing going on in Syria. But what the Duo have so far refused to answer – and Ryan skated away from last night – is exactly how they would accomplish that. It’s the one question that no American politician wants to answer. Instead, they want the war drum music to play in the background in order to give their listeners the subliminal impression of how military tough they are, without getting into the cold realities of what their cliché is hinting at. And the voters also happily buy into that little piece of theatre by never asking themselves just what cliché means either.
Except during the debate when Joltin’ Joe finally let slip a hint of what’s being coyly alluded to in that war-thump music: Bombing Iran, an act of war sure to loosen a huge bag of very deadly snakes that nobody wants to face, and putting boots on the ground in Syria, an act sure to destabilize an already unstable region. Anybody in America up for that? If so, please step to the front. The Army recruitment center is just down the road.
If not, then it’s back to the voter to ask themselves follow-up questions involving the words, “exactly,” and “be specific,” “How would that work out in real terms?” and “What’s the downside of this?”
If this debate illustrated anything for me it was this: The pragmatic brain understands that the world is a constantly shifting place of hard edges and fuzzy illusion where doing nothing is often not an option and doing something too often comes with costly built-in penalties. The cliché brain doesn’t understand that complexity; it’s happy with smiley-faced simplicity.
Which set up the final question of evening: Which brain will show up in the voting booth come November 6th?