Politicians" Rhetorical Ploys

It is the right time now to check in on how politicians and their staff try to hoodwink us all. It isn't just candidates but a great many public policy celebrities who resort to various ploys-'as when they are asked about how they would handle this or that eventuality, and they decline on the grounds that they do not deal with hypotheticals. And it is all balderdash.

Fact is, hypotheticals are all we deal with as we go about setting our plans for whatever we do in our lives. As one philosopher, Stephen Law, put it recently in Think, a journal of UK's The Royal Institute of Philosophy: "But actually, this [the evasion] is just a cheap rhetorical trick. It is part of the politician's job to consider hypothetical questions, questions such as 'What if the global economy takes a nose dive?' and 'What if interest rates rise?' In fact, politicians are often very keen to answer such questions'-for example, they are more than happy to tell us what they will do if they win the election, even if it is rather unlike they will win."

It is even more serious an evasion than Professor Law suggests. Indeed, he sadly buys into the idea that politicians have this incredible job of fixing the world.

In any case, we are always working with hypotheticals as we consider what we will do next. Our minds are usually focused on 'What if I do A, rather than alternatives B, C, and D?' We are, in short, always thinking about possibilities, with actualities tending to be not all that interesting since over them we have no control-'they are past and done with as far as anything we can do about them is concerned.

Still, it is interesting that so few journalists challenge candidates, especially, or people like Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld, when they pull this evasive ploy. One can only puzzle about what these journalists learn in their journalism classes. Doesn't anyone teach them such elementary stuff as that these folks are evasive and to block the evasion one must come up with a good retort. And here the retort that should be given is just what Professor Law notes: Point out to them that every time they think ahead, they are dealing with hypotheticals, with stuff that hasn't yet happened but could, so if they won't answer them they are refusing to answer anything about their plans.

This is yet another clue to how utterly ineffectual both politicians and the fourth estate watching them have become. And naturally so, because the issues with which politicians and their staff pretend to address are simply not anything they can actually manage. No wonder they evade the question.

Just take Professor Law's question, 'What if the global economy takes a nose dive?' No politician and no bureaucrat could possibly have a clue what to do then. They aren't Gods, able to manipulate the universe to bring about some kind of desired state of affairs. They are essentially like the rest of us, capable of making small changes here and there, with most of it entirely out of our hands. 'What if interest rates rise?' Who can answer that except perhaps Alan Greenspan, and even his interference is largely beside the point or may make some kind of difference for the short run at most.

What should be obvious is that politics is impotent to help us with much of anything in the world and, more importantly, those running for office and meddling in our affairs appear to know this plain and simple. They might well not be so evasive, so duplicitous, if they thought they actually had some solutions to problems we face and the silly journalists actually expect them to address. 'What will you do if the market crashes?' What ditzy questions are these sorts anyway to a politician? But too many our journalists are ideologically on board with those who see the mighty state as the solver of our problems, so they keep addressing those who run for office and are in office as if they had a clue.

It may be important to address one's parents, spouse or friends with such questions, of course, or perhaps one's broker, all of whom operate at the level of local knowledge, where reality can be handled more or less competently by people. But with these politicians and bureaucrats the hubris-'or pretense'-is that they claim to be able to make a big difference for the better and on a large scale.

In fact, mostly the only difference they can make is for the worse, as is clear if we consider that forcibly interfering with people just messes things up and rarely ever helps (which is why doing so is normally a crime). And with the evident evasiveness and empty rhetoric of self-deluded or pretentious politicians that journalist could bring to light, the rest of the population might actually catch on after a while and not expect them to come through as some kind of saviors of us all.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.