Contract Republican Rhetorical Style: An Environmental Example
In the prior essay, The
Contract Republicans and the Tragedy of the Commons, I examined the
substance of what Newt Gingrich said about the environment in
To Renew America. His process--the choice and order of
arguments and the vocabulary used to advance them--is equally interesting.
Gingrich's bag of tricks includes the following:
- Pre-emption. He announces that he is an environmentalist. "My
interest in the environment goes back to childhood....I
participated in the first Earth Day....I introduced students
to the concept of ecosystems...." This
is the same tactic used by Hitler when he called himself a
- Demonization. His adversaries are not true environmentalists;
they are left-wing Democrats with a hidden agenda. "They wanted to
defeat Republicans and elect Democrats, no matter what the
substance of the issues." By now, there is only one true
environmentalist in the picture, and it is Mr. Gingrich.
- Combining complacency with hopelessness. Having claimed the mantle of
environmentalist, and stripped it from the shoulders of
his adversaries, Mr. Gingrich next tells us that nothing can be
done. Every prior environmental program represented a waste
of effort. "[T]he asbestos program probably wasted $5 billion
without significantly inmproving public health....The Superfund
program spent nearly 40 percent of its billions on lawyers and
bureaucrats....Many environmental regulations hatched in
Washington put a ridiculous burden on small communities."
- Avoidance. Mr. Gingrich, even while praising clean
air and water as environmental benefits, never acknowledges that
government had anything to do with obtaining these. Similarly,
he skirts making any substantive recommendations to better the
situation; instead, he recommends placebos: captive breeding
instead of "blocking all change in the environment"; "encouraging
pro-environmental technologies" instead of "clumsy...cleanup-type
approaches." Of course, the Contract contained no proposals in
support of the environment, but several major attacks on it,
including the takings
and unfunded mandate bills.
has unleashed an unprecedented number of environmentally destructive
measures, including takings, unfunded mandates, a moratorium on EPA
veto of wetlands projects, indiscriminate logging on public lands,
and the opening of public parks to other types of exploitation.
- Non-sequiturs. Mr. Gingrich is fond of diverting attention
away from substantive issues by telling fuzzy anecdotes, like that
of his constituent, Linda, who "has a good chance of doing well
financially" by converting Coke bottles to T-shirts.
- Speaking in code. Mr. Gingrich, and conservative
Republicans in general, favor certain code phrases which express
radical ideas. Their supporters understand the code, while, to everyone
else, the language sounds quite innocuous. For example, Gingrich
says, "We should also recognize that there are a lot of
natural rhythms (including weather and geologic rhythms of
which we may not be aware) that guarantee the planet will
be changing all the time." Translation: global warming is
a natural phenomenon, and the release of chemicals into the
atmosphere has nothing to do with it. Similarly, the description
of the takings
bill in the Contract with America is quite bland:
The act "allows private property owners to receive compensation....
from the federal government for any reduction in the value of
their property." Nowhere does the Contract indicate that the
government may end up compensating a landowner, for example,
for his inability to use the land as a toxic waste dump.
Although politicians in general use rhetorical tricks, those
who do not represent mainstream views are more prone to do
so. Conservative Republicans have always spoken in code on issues
such as race--where for thirty years they have been unable to admit
publicly their own racism--the environment and gun control, where their
agenda is to roll back measures that have proved fairly popular
with the public. Naturally, when you are about to do something
vicious and unpopular, you cannot speak of it openly, in terms
everyone can understand.