The Lie as Rhetorical Device in Republican Politics

It’s a cliché in U.S. politics (and a truism) that presidential candidates are more extreme in primaries, when they are seeking votes from party loyalists and activists, and then more centrist in the election itself, when they must appeal to the broadest possible audience. The incumbent, of course, has to be circumspect, given that his positions are, in effect, policy. So President Obama sounds more or less the same, while Romney has changed dramatically.

What’s new is both the timing– Romney didn’t make a slow shift away from the far-right, he made a sudden, wild lurch in just a few weeks– and the degree: Romney isn’t simply changing position, he is reversing himself completely, saying yes when he would have said no just a few weeks ago. He thought leaving Iraq was premature and the announced date a comfort to our enemies. Now the war had to end and he agrees with the date.

My students and I are studying rhetorical devices this week and it strikes me that the Romney campaign has by all signs decided that even an open lie is just another rhetorical device, like hyperbole or a simile, and as such it has no ethical or moral implications. I think that this has to be related, in some fashion, to that 47% video and to what Romney thinks about the audience for his political arguments. He thinks that we just won’t notice.

I suspect that he and his campaign have calculated that the mainstream media is loath to use the word lie, less it appear nonobjective and partisan. In effect, this means that the real rhetorical device is hidden behind another: euphemism. It’s not that Romney is lying about his position on the automobile industry, it’s just that he is “moderating his position.” It works because it uses the assumptions of journalism against itself.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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