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30.6.09

Obama's Horserace Stimulus

A constant complaint during U.S. political campaigns is that the media doesn't cover the issues. They just obsess over the horserace, the strategy, how seven-figure-salary elites who have never had an original thought in their lives imagine "average Americans" will react to the latest gaffe. Instead of telling us about how candidate A's environmental proposal will affect our energy system, they tell us how it will affect the candidate's chances among coal-mining region voters.

The catch here is that issue coverage has to treat candidates' statements as communicative speech acts -- that is, it has to treat them as revealing a belief held by the speaker and aiming to persuade others to accept that belief as true. The alternative is for speech acts to be strategic -- aiming to produce some reaction in the hearer in a cause-and-effect manner. The trick with strategic speech acts is that they're parasitic on communicative ones. You can usually only cause certain effects in listeners if they (mistakenly) take your statements as expressing some sort of sincere substance.

Barack Obama has done a good job of bursting the illusion that we can ever assume campaign trail speech to be communicative. He's a smooth talker, so he fooled a lot of people, including myself. For example, when I cast my vote in November, I had been persuaded by his comments that he wanted to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Sucker. It's now abundantly clear that he does not. His claim to be a "fierce advocate" for LGBT issues was purely strategic, intended to elicit donations and votes from people who care about those issues, not communicate anything about his beliefs or intentions on the issue. The audacity involved in this kind of big-scale strategic speech doesn't come easily to most people, but it can become a way of life for those who can pull it off. Thus, to continue our example, Obama can continue to make sincere-sounding promises about his commitment to repealing DADT to the face of a serviceman who he's court-martialing for being gay.

Once you've lost the trust that candidates' speech acts are communicative, trying to cover the issues becomes a snipe hunt. We could get a great understanding of the issues, but it would do us no good in deciding how to vote. So all that's left is horserace coverage.

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