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The Limits of Political Speech: Talking About Everything Just Makes It Worse

20 March 2012

5:37 PM

20 March 2012

5:37 PM

The Sunday Telegraph was sensible enough to publish a pleasing article by Brother Hoskin last weekend in which our man took the temperature of political speech-making in Britain today and, concluded, that it is, well, tepid. The speechwriters Pete talked to seem to agree.

The decline of the political speech is, for sure, a minority concern. The people are not troubled by it. In any case, journalists, being in the word business themselves, are prone to over-estimating the power of political speech. Except in unusual circumstances, economic fundamentals are more important than Prime Ministerial or Presidential rhetoric. Perhaps the best advice in Pete’s article is that David Cameron should make fewer speeches, not more. A Prime Minister must be listened to; his appearances should be rationed and there should be many issues upon which he has no view – or no public view – at all.

Furthermore, talking about an issue can be an effective way of mobilising opposition to it. Consider the Big Society: David Cameron really believes in this and, at its broadest, most conceptual level (stripping away unecessary bureaucracy; "empowering" local communities and associations) so do many voters. But despite repeated "relaunches" and more than a few Prime Ministerial speeches, the public remains sceptical and the idea appears to have withered. Talking about the virtues of the Big Society, it turns out, does little to soothe or reassure voters. On the contrary, it may make matters worse, concentrating attention on a putative reduction – or change – in local services that may be unwelcome even if, considered dispassionately by the very same voters, those services might be considered underwhelming or even appalling. Specific concerns trump general approval and, by rallying opposition, Prime Ministerial speeches can make matters worse.

I suspect something similar happens with the economy too. For example, the more ministers urge banks to increase lending the more it must seem that increasing lending is a bad idea. If the case for more lending was obvious, banks would be lending more. The fact that politicians berate the banks for not doing more to boost economic "confidence" suggests there are good reasons for not being confident about the economy’s immediate prospects. Ministers, for the best of reasons, protest too much. Talking less might achieve more.


Similarly, incentives do not always work as designed. Small tweaks to the tax system to encourage small businesses to take on additional staff send a signal that general economic conditions do not favour such an approach. It may make a small difference to a small number of businesses or, more probably, might prove useful in the longer-term but it is unlikely to "kick-start" the economy. Bribes have their place in politics, but political calls for more "investment" are a sign that the economic case for more investment is weak. Economic "confidence" is a mysterious thing at the best of times; it cannot be boosted by boosterish politicians. Moreover, attempts to increase confidence may themselves undermine confidence. Hunkering-down and waiting is not an attractive political option; it may be more useful than anything else.

As Ezra Klein wrote in the New Yorker last week, this is true for Presidents too. Barack Obama has discovered that even eloquence can be wearying and subject to the laws of diminishing returns. Obama is a great one for giving speeches and better at delivering them than most but there are limits to what Presidential rhetoric can achieve. In part, that is a feature of a political system that has moved to a parliamentary model without a corresponding increase in executive power. American politics – more tansparent than ever – has, for the most part, become a zero sum game. No wonder everyone, including sitting Presidents, runs against Washington.

Obama has given many fine speeches. But the two that stand out were not expressly political addresses. The first was his speech on race in America, given at the height of the Jeremiah Wright furore. It was a big speech on a big issue and one that confirmed Obama was ready for America and America ready for Obama. More, perhaps, than any other speech he has given it gave even his political opponents a reason to welcome, at least in part, his success.

The second speech that sticks in the memory is the one Obama gave in Tucson, Arizona after Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot. This too was a remarkable address that showed the President at his best. Again, it was not an explicitly political speech (or at least, it was not a policy address). It was selling something else: the American idea (or at least a version of it). It came after a wobbly spell for Democrats and I think it had a political effect too: it reminded people why they voted for this guy in the first place. It galvanised opinion in Washington and re-energised Obama’s recovery from the nadir of the mid-term elections.

But such instances are rare. It is notable, however, that Obama’s most effective speeches have, I think, been the ones in which he is not pitching a laundry list of policies but are, instead, speeches about bigger issues entirely. This speaks to a certain understandable public scepticism but also, I think, to a certain appetite for figures who can rise above the petty fray of political squabbling. In each of these speeches Obama was certainly (and unavoidably) selling himself but he was doing so in a way that was not explicitly partisan.

As Pete noted in his original article, the conventions governing how you can talk in the United States are different from those that apply in the UK. But in each case there is this: the task of political rhetoric these days is less to persuade the audience that a given guy’s policies are the best available but that you can be comfortable with this guy’s presence in the top job. They are about reassuring as much as they are a matter of persuading. (This is a problem for Ed Miliband, incidentally and also, perhaps, about Mitt Romney). That does not always permit space for great rhetoric, not least since the culture today is visua, not literary. Nor, unfortunately, does it make for speeches that are not more or less interchangeable. The formula is growing stale and most politicians sound just like any other politician these days. That however, and though there may perhaps be one exception to this trend in British politics today, is fodder for another post.


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