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Response to George F. Will: To Trust or Distrust the Electorate?

December 1, 2008
Political Communication

Editor's note: In the November 17, 2008 issue of Newsweek, George F. Will presented his view of rhetoric (also known as oratory or public speaking) in relationship to the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. Will's column, The Last Word: The Final Repudaation, is linked here. Communication scholars Tom Frentz (University of Arkansas), Jennifer Mercieca (Texas A & M University), and David Levasseur (West Chester University)provide alternative interpretations.

Did the 2008 presidential election represent the triumph of inferior forms of political communication over an unthinking electorate? Political columnist George F. Will seems to think so. In a recent post-election editorial published in Newsweek, Will argued that Obama secured the White House by relying upon the “‘popular art' of oratory” so feared by the founding fathers. I believe Will's case is constructed on a fundamental misreading of the 2008 election.

In his editorial, Will, relying heavily upon the work of political scientist James Ceasar, points out that the nation's founders had originally planned to turn the task of presidential selection over to a thoughtful, deliberative body known as the Electoral College. The founders wanted enlightened arguments advanced within the Electoral College to drive the presidential selection process because they distrusted popular forms of political oratory that could easily misguide the masses. In Will's view, Obama's victory represents “the final repudiation of the Founder's intentions regarding the selection” of presidents. Further, Will affirms that Obama's victory stands for just what the founders did not want to see—a candidate relying upon his pretty words and “personal qualities” to make up for a remarkably thin resume.

Will is certainly correct in observing that the kind of popular oratory so feared by the founders was on ample display during the 2008 presidential race. Misleading popular appeals abounded from the McCain campaign's repeated assertion that Obama planned to raise everyone's taxes to the Obama campaign's persistent claim that McCain intended to slash social security benefits. Given the abundance of such dubious campaign appeals, one could, and Will does, interpret the 2008 election outcome as the result of popular oratory fooling citizens into making an unwise decision. Will, in particular, reads the 2008 election results as the triumph of personality over political substance—as Obama's personal charm winning out despite his vacuous campaign messages and equally empty resume.

Will compares Obama's victory to Jimmy Carter's rise to the presidency in 1976. During the 1976 presidential race, Carter basically sold the electorate his appealing “personal qualities,” and voters only later learned that they had purchased a very unappealing and unsuccessful presidency. Relying upon this historical comparison, Will portrays the 2008 presidential race as a candidate image election, as a race in which voters essentially succumbed to Obama's star power.

Post-election data, however, simply don't support this characterization of the 2008 election results. Exit polls suggest that this election was far less about Obama and far more about change. CNN exit polls show that when citizens were asked to identify the candidate quality that mattered most, their top choice was the candidate's ability to “bring change.” Given their desire for change, voters in 2008 primarily followed a voting path known as retrospective voting. When voters cast their ballots retrospectively, they assess the performance of the party in charge. If voters are pleased with that party's performance, they reward that party with votes. On the other hand, if voters feel that the party in charge has been guiding the nation in the wrong direction, they then opt for a new guide. In fact, one common way to gauge how retrospective voting might affect an election's outcome is to simply ask voters if they feel the nation is moving in the right or the wrong direction. When posed this question by CNN pollsters on election day, 75% of voters expressed a belief that the nation was headed down the “wrong track,” and the overwhelming majority of these voters cast their ballots for Obama (62% for Obama to 32% for McCain). Importantly, while voting scholars have long debated the desirability of different pathways to voting decisions, they have generally held a fairly favorable view of the retrospective voting path. After all, if people find themselves following an undesirable course, it simply makes sense for them to change course.

The national circumstances in 2008, including two endless war efforts abroad and a limitless economic downturn at home, strongly suggested that it was time for the nation to change course. Both campaigns recognized these compelling circumstances and called for change. Obama continuously characterized his vision for the nation as a “change you can believe in” while McCain perpetually talked about “bringing fundamental change to Washington.”

While each campaign made a mighty effort to affix the change label to their candidate, McCain ultimately could not get that change label to stick. During the primary season, McCain went to great lengths to rally the Republican base behind his candidacy. In his effort to attract these hardcore conservative voters, McCain closely aligned himself to the Bush administration and ended up advancing policy proposals taken straight from the Bush Administration's playbook. For example, McCain's central economic plan centered on rejuvenating the economy by cutting taxes. Bush used similar economic arguments to push through major tax cuts in 2000, 2001, and again in 2003. McCain dramatically shifted his campaign rhetoric during the Republican convention. At this event, he introduced the nation to Sarah Palin and to a very different brand of campaign discourse that foretold of two mavericks shaking things up in Washington. This new McCain campaign rhetoric of reform and change made little sense when combined with the campaign's past rhetoric and recycled policy prescriptions. In the end, voters didn't fall for such nonsensical popular oratory. Thus, George Will inaccurately characterizes the 2008 election as the triumph of popular political appeals over an unreasoning electorate. Instead voters largely ignored foolish popular appeals and arrived at a fairly reasonable judgment. Voters desired change, and they recognized that the Obama candidacy made the stronger case for representing real change.

Since the desire for change in troubled times acted as the primary drive behind voting decisions, the 2008 election was far more akin to Ronald Reagan's victory in 1980 than to Jimmy Carter's road to the White House in 1976. In what amounted to arguably the most powerful line of his 1980 campaign, Reagan asked those viewing his debate with President Carter, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” With this question, the Reagan campaign, just like the Obama campaign, encouraged citizens to cast their votes retrospectively. Did Reagan's retrospective appeals represent the kind of popular oratory so feared by the nation's founders? It's unlikely that George Will would equate Reagan's rhetoric with pernicious popular oratory since Will himself had a hand in preparing Reagan for his 1980 campaign debate against Carter. Moreover, Will did not seem to perceive a public fooled by popular oratory at the culmination of the 1980 election. Shortly after this race came to a close, Will wrote an editorial for Newsweek titled "Washington's High Turnover." In that editorial, Will tied the “conservative tide in the polling booths” to governmental mismanagement throughout the 1970s. During this decade, according to Will, the nation “deferred investment” in its “productive capacity” and in its “defense” needs. The 1980 election, it seems, sent a clear message to Washington that it was “time we got back to the basics of life.” In 2008, many Americans concerned about these same basics sent a similar message to their government.

About the author (s)

David Levasseur

West Chester University 

Assistant Professor