Outrageous Rhetoric, Political Alienation and Democratic Deliberation

GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson recently surpassed Donald Trump in opinion polls for the first time among potential Republican voters in the February Iowa Caucuses, and I was struck to see that he is perceived positively by supporters for his apparently soft spoken demeanor, irrespective of his often controversial policy stands and remarks. For example, one interviewee, a retired woman from Ames, Donna Christiansen, told a New York Times reporter on October 25, “He is kind when he speaks, and he doesn’t have an agenda to set himself up as wonderful.” Miriam Greenfield described by the Times as “a farmer in Jewell, Iowa,” suggested, “That smile and his soft voice make people very comforted (sic).” Jason Walke, a trial lawyer from Ames, told the same reporter that no other GOP candidate “has a snowball’s chance of changing things in Washington the way Ben Carson does. I believe someone as mild-mannered and gentlemanly as Ben Carson is just about the only kind of person that could” (Gabriel, 2015). Now, this turn, and this sort of citizen justification for it, is worth remarking for several reasons. The first is the paradox of voters offering support despite Carson’s frequently outlandish comments. For example, he has compared Federal government efforts to ensure health insurance for all Americans to slavery:

Obamacare is the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery. Slavery was a horrible thing and affected many people in horrible ways, some of those effects are still present today. So, no, it is not the same as slavery, however, what needs to be understood here is that the way this country was set up, the people—we the people were set up at the pinnacle of power in this nation. The government is supposed to conform to our will. By taking the most important thing you have, your health and your health care, and turning that over to the government, you fundamentally shift the power, a huge chunk of it, from the people to the government. This is not the direction that we want the government to go in this nation (Bobic, 2015).

Whatever else might be said of these observations, which Carson has refused to rescind, it seems clear that the Affordable Care Act in no sense turned citizens’ health over to government control or imposed any requirements even remotely resembling slavery in seeking to secure its stated aim of helping provide access to health care for those millions of Americans otherwise not able to obtain it. Carson’s analogy is so grotesque and so wildly inappropriate that it has led to vigorous criticism from across the political spectrum. But, notably, the growing group of Carson supporters in Iowa report they are not concerned about what this belief might say about their currently preferred Republican presidential candidate’s fitness for office.

Carson has also likened the U.S. to Nazi Germany, while misreading history and outrageously distorting current events to do so:

Nazi Germany experienced something horrible. The people in Nazi Germany largely didn't believe in what Hitler was doing. But they didn't say anything. Of course not, they kept their mouth shut. The fact that our government is using instruments of government like the IRS to punish its opponents, this is not the kind of thing that is a Democrat or a Republican issue. This is an American issue. ... A lot of people do not feel free to express themselves (Bobic, 2015).

This statement is simply nonsense in historical terms, as millions of Germans did, in fact, support Hitler and Nazism. It also profoundly and misleadingly caricatures what actually occurred in a recent IRS investigation of tax-exempt organizations. There is no evidence that President Obama or anyone else serving in the current administration is systematically targeting any law abiding American as a result of his or her political beliefs.

Carson has employed another false analogy to Nazism to suggest that the victims of the Holocaust would have fared better had they been better armed. Here is how he sought to explain that statement (originally offered earlier at the National Press Club) to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer:

Basically, what I said is that when tyranny occurs traditionally around the world, they try and disarm the people first. And that is exactly what happened in Germany. You know, mid- to late 30s they started a program to disarm the people and by mid- to late 40's, look what had happened. I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed. I'm telling you there is a reason these dictatorial people take the guns first (Scott, 2015).

This assertion is notable for appearing, incredibly, to demand that the victims be held partly responsible for the Shoah. Moreover, it is deeply offensive for the parallel it implies to the United States today. In fact, no one is the target of systematic murderous persecution and no one in government is seeking in absolute terms to deprive Americans of access to firearms in our nation today. Both intimations are not simply empirically false; they are madly off the mark.

Carson offered a very similar argument in the wake of the recent mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, suggesting that those nearby should have rushed the shooter and fewer people would have been murdered. In fact, one individual did so and was killed. That said, his remarks, which appeared to imply that those killed were partially responsible for the tragic events that befell them, were both offensive and appallingly insensitive.

Nevertheless, despite these patent distortions, a plurality of likely GOP Iowa caucus voters is now supporting Carson. According to media reports, these citizens are making their political choices on the basis of “character,” rather than policy positions. As with ascribing presidential fitness to Carson because he is soft spoken, I think this contention is deeply misleading. Deciding to support the former physician because he is not a public bombast is not to come to a considered judgment on his character. Indeed, it says virtually nothing about his character. One can be deeply malevolent and soft spoken, or the reverse, extraordinarily kind and empathetic and loudly ebullient. These voters are not evaluating Carson’s character, which is revealed far more deeply by his statements concerning health care access, guns and mass murder, and the IRS than by his demeanor during interviews and speeches.

What these citizens seem to be judging instead is a vague image they have gleaned of the candidate that they contrast with other leaders, who are engaged in rancorous debate. These voters appear to be hoping against hope that Carson’s pleasant, seemingly nonthreatening bearing would suffice to convince those otherwise in conflict to “play nice now.” One might share the desire such could occur and still be amazed at how utterly undeliberatively these citizens have behaved in coming to this perspective. In fact, what Carson represents as a candidate is, at best, a barrage of empty and platitudinous declarations that reveal almost no knowledge of policy realities, and at worst, a batty set of often ugly claims. Indeed, taking his remarks at face value, Carson often appears to be unhinged from reality in his observations.

In short, the willingness of these Iowa voters to embrace an individual based on his apparent deportment, and to dismiss his comments in doing so, hardly constitutes a model of deliberation, either of character or of policy proposals, and certainly not of both. While, as Joan Didion has aptly suggested in Political Fictions, it may be that the thoroughly mediatized and hyper-planned American political campaign process has become “perilously remote from the electorate it was meant to represent,” only citizens can remedy that situation, and they cannot do so by abandoning all prudence in their judgments of political figures and their behavior (Didion, 2001, 8).

One can see this turn for Carson in Iowa, whether lasting or not, as a window into two key ongoing concerns in American politics: the disaffection among large shares of the electorate from governance and politics on the basis, at least in part, of its ever-more carefully staged and mediated character, and the decline of deliberative capacity or willingness (or perhaps both) among voters. Both trends should give partisans of democracy pause, for both are poisonous for its maintenance in the long term. Rather than concocting ever more egregious stories designed to enrage, disaffect and mobilize “population segments” to the polls, our candidates and elected officials instead should assume some responsibility for encouraging more reasoned citizen deliberation and engagement beyond the specious, “I like the way he (or she) looks, speaks or dresses.”

 

Note to Readers: Soundings will return December 7, 2015.

 

References    

Bobic, Igor. “Ben Carson Stands by Nazi Germany, Slavery Comparisons,” The Huffington Post, December 3, 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/03/ben-carson-nazi-germany-slavery_n_6263508.html

Didion, Joan. Political Fictions, New York: Random House, 2001.

Gabriel, Trip. “Calm Manner has Ben Carson Rising in Polls,” New York Times, October 25, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/26/us/politics/calm-manner-has-ben-carson-rising-in-polls.html?emc=edit_th_20151026&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=40087534&_r=0

Scott, Eugene, “Ben Carson explains Holocaust Comments,” CNN Politics, October 9, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/08/politics/ben-carson-gun-control-2016-election/