There's Method in Those Campaign Metaphors
BY their metaphors ye shall know them. Although it may seem almost too neat a form of political analysis, take a look at how the metaphors used by this year's crop of Republican presidential hopefuls reveal their thoughts and strategies. In speech and slogan around New Hampshire, the candidates reveal much that is basic about their approach to governing and about the voters they hope to appeal to.
For example, Bob Dole's metaphors reflect his dilemma as a longtime Washington insider running against the status quo. As he claims in a speech in Rochester: "Some people say, 'That's the trouble, you've been in politics too long.' But then I think that if I'm going to have an operation, I want somebody who's been in there for a while who's working me over." He becomes the experienced surgeon (always preferable to an inexperienced one) treating the body politic in Washington.
Senator Dole further addresses this when he claims, at a WMUR-TV candidates' forum: "I feel like in '94, the cavalry finally got there." In effect, he absolves himself of responsibility for the federal government's actions by likening himself to someone who has been holding the fort against hostile forces.
Dole later claims that as president he will "rein in the government." The federal government as unruly beast will be contained by a Dole presidency. His performance in the budget negotiations should be viewed in this light.
Health metaphors are a longtime staple of politicians. Lamar Alexander uses these metaphors in New Hampshire when he states over and over, "I was in Washington long enough to be vaccinated, but not infected." He evokes our human desires to eradicate disease and pestilence. In Mr. Alexander's eyes, Washington represents an active threat to our collective health. This metaphor adapts well to recurrent themes of "personal responsibility" and other metaphors in the Alexander campaign. He exhorts us to look "outside Washington" for answers to our problems. As he said in December to a group of voters in Derry, "Washington undermines personal responsibility." Undermine, as in weaken or debilitate.
Steve Forbes portrays the federal government as obstructing the American people's progress. He decries "barriers and obstacles" erected by a federal government that "stand[s] in the way of our moving ahead." Naturally, they must be removed.
The metaphors of movement occur throughout Mr. Forbes's speeches. Movement is good, and impediments to movement are bad. He notes how a "traditional strength and characteristic of America ... is the people; when they see problems, they come together to do something about these problems." As examples he points to the 1800s for the "abolition movement," the "religious movements," and the "first public-health movement in America, [which] was not a government program, it was the temperance movement." Forbes claims "We're about to have a series of movements the likes of which ... we haven't had since the turn of the century." In other words, government gets in the way of Americans' natural problem-solving efforts.
Metaphors are incomplete and selective presentations. Their very virtue of reducing complexity by comparing similar, but not identical, concepts or objects creates a focus for our attention. In the above examples, Forbes does not go on to mention the role of the federal government in outlawing slavery, or passing child-labor laws at the turn of century, and he never mentions the later 20th-century social movements. Metaphors draw our attention to one aspect of a concept, but divert our attention from other aspects of the same concept. In other words, a metaphor reveals only part of the picture, the part the candidate wants us to consider.
Candidates use metaphors to strengthen their image and evoke emotions. Pat Buchanan's speeches are filled with metaphors of war and conflict. In a Manchester speech, Mr. Buchanan calls for "a leadership that believes in the politics of confrontation and fighting." In a Seabrook speech, Buchanan says his presidency would bring destruction, when the "new world order comes crashing down"; confrontation, as he tells the Japanese prime minister, "Now you're going to straighten this trade deficit out or I'm going to straighten it out"; and revival, as he "restore[s] traditional values."
Buchanan's frequent use of war metaphors boosts his image as a fighter. Consider, for example, how he "stood his ground" on issues associated with his pro-life positions. And later when he says, "I've been fighting these battles for life for 25 years." When Buchanan talks of his position against NAFTA and GATT he notes, "Every one of them involves a surrender of America's national sovereignty."
Finally, metaphors simplify complex situations. Sen. Phil Gramm describes a welfare system that has "turned a social safety net into a hammock." In a speech on welfare policy at Portsmouth, he characterizes the welfare system as one that "takes money away from the people who are pulling the wagon and give[s] more money to people who are riding in the wagon." In a Dover speech, Senator Gramm proposes a welfare bill with a mandatory work requirement, because "able-bodied men and women riding in the welfare wagon should be asked to get out of the wagon and help the rest of us pull." A critical listener might ask who is pulling and how hard one is expected to pull, but specific details are not a strength of the metaphor. This explains part of the attractiveness of the metaphor.
Metaphors are seductive because they clarify and simplify the complex, and can reinforce our predispositions. But they also cloud and distort. In the end we should not take metaphors uncritically. Heed the words of Paul Valery, the French poet and essayist, who warns that the "folly ... of mistaking metaphors for proof ... is inborn in us."