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Saying Yes to No

In Communication, Politics, Rhetoric, Rhetoric & Communication on October 9, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Not long ago I was in the passenger seat of my friend’s car.  This friend, backing out of a parking space, collided with another car that he didn’t see coming.  I had seen the other car but remained silent, assuming, wrongly it turned out, that my friend would notice the car, which, after all, was an oversized SUV.  Would that I had cried “no!” or “watch out!”  Instead I allowed the wreck to happen.

This year Republicans are crying “no!”  (Would that they had done so earlier.)  Massive bailouts, nationalized healthcare, increased spending—these things simply will not do.  Taking a page from Ron Paul’s playbook, Republicans have realized the power of “no” as a strategic signifier.  They have—implicitly at least—portrayed Obama as someone backing out of a parking space without looking over his shoulder or even checking his rearview mirror.

Republicans, many of them, have constructed a culture that is at once defiant and receptive—defiant of the dominant ideology in Washington (of which, ironically, they’re a part) and receptive to the wants and needs of the masses, represented in no small way by the tea party movement, which would just as quickly boot a Republican from office as it would a Democrat.

Republicans are in one sense the party of “yes” (as in say “yes” to dismantling the power structures of Washington).  Nevertheless, the leftist fashion has been to refer to Republicans as the “Party of No.”  From the president to his sectaries and sycophants (Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid), Democrats have assigned this “no” label to Republicans as if it were tainted.  But tainted it is not.  Some of history’s greatest stalwarts have worn the badge of “no.”  (I’ll spare you a list.)  Yet the left continues to accuse Republicans of doing nothing and saying no.  Why?  Because Americans have always—even to their own detriment—preferred the “yes we can” attitude.

“Yes” is highly contingent in the political context, always implicated in ideological schemes, always tied to untested and aspirational programs, always transmitted to the public via media pundits and spin spots.  In place of “no,” Democrats have employed such signifiers as “yes,” “hope,” “change,” and the like.  They have harnessed words of action in the service of Jacobin projects.

Few things are fully yes or fully no.  Which is why we should pay attention to, and take part in, the rhetorical games played by Republicans and Democrats.  Rhetoric is an art lost on our generation of tweeters and bloggers.  We prefer emails to letters, tweets to newspapers, gossip to novels.  Our president, as much as he fancies himself an American Cicero, can’t orate without a teleprompter.

Yet we are a smart, literate culture.  Americans are no longer empty receptacles waiting for the political classes to fill them with “wisdom.”  They are no longer passively compliant; they have agency.  The rhetorical landscape is wide open, ready to be shaped.  If they are wise (and they often aren’t), Republicans will use the pen and the podium, rather than naked power, to sway voters.  That supposedly disabling word—“no”—will gain purchase as elections near.  We simply have had too much of “yes.”

“YES WE CAN manhandle Americans,” the Obama administration insists on insisting.  “YES WE CAN implement policies that disrupt and disable the American economy.”  “YES WE CAN do away with traditional political processes in favor of despotic power grabs.”  “YES WE CAN say the word ‘bipartisanship’ over and over while lecturing, ignoring, and making fun of our opponents.”

Little wonder that Republicans have embraced the “no” label.

Not the “Party of No,” but the “Party of Hell No!”—that’s what will win elections this fall.  That’s what will hold currency in the public arena.  Republicans should not sit quietly in the passenger seat and let the accident unfold before their eyes.  Because unlike my friend’s car, America isn’t insured.  We fit the bill for its damage.  For once, I might just join Republicans in their shout: “No!”

Let’s hit the brakes, America.

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