Why Clinton’s speech was so good
September 6, 2012 2 Comments
As mentioned, I just got sucked into Bill Clinton’s speech last night. This morning driving into work, I was thinking about why, exactly, I liked it so much. I realized, it was because he actually treated the audience of the speech as if they were intelligent and could handle a meaningful discussion of policy instead of the empty platitudes that so commonly characterize political speech. So, now that I see James Fallows has written a great explanation of this, it just furthers my apreciation for Fallows as among the smartest political observers out there. Anyway, here’s Fallows:
Why Bill Clinton’s Speeches Succeed
Because he treats listeners as if they are smart.
That is the significance of “They want us to think” and “The strongest argument is” and “The arithmetic says one of three things must happen” and even “Now listen to me here, this is important.” He is showing that he understands the many layers of logic and evidence and positioning and emotion that go into political discussion — and, more important, he takes for granted that listeners can too.
The main other place you hear discussion based on the same assumption that people of any background, education level, or funny-sounding accent can understand sophisticated back-and-forth of argument and counter-claim is sports-talk radio. (“I understand the concern about Strasburg’s arm. But … “) You hear insults and disagreements and put-downs on sports-talk discussions. You rarely hear the kind of deliberate condescension, the unconcealable effort as if talking to slow learners, of many political “authorities” addressing the unwashed.
It’s the difference between clarifying, and over-simplifying. Clarification, with the confidence that people can understand the back and forth, lies behind passages like this, which characterized most of the speech. Emphasis on the parts that show his approach being applied:
We Democrats, we think the country works better with a strong middle class, with real opportunities for poor folks to work their way into it, with a relentless focus on the future, with business and government actually working together to promote growth and broadly shared prosperity. You see, we believe that “We’re all in this together” is a far better philosophy than “You’re on your own.”
Different people have different natural modes for their speech, and not many people can pull it off just the way Clinton does. But Clinton reminds us of the value (and rarity) of this tone in politics — and the next time you listen to a sports-talk channel, think how much better our political discussion would be if participants assumed as much sophistication about argument as ESPN and radio-talk hosts do.
I don’t listen to a lot of sports-talk radio, but definitely enough to appreciate the comparison. They operate on a basic assumption that if you are listening that you can handle a reasonably sophisticated discussion about the sport in question. Rarely do we actually get that with politics.
Fallows also links to a Molly Ball piece that has a similar take on Clinton’s effectiveness:
It may have been the most effective speech of either political convention.
The reason wasn’t Clinton’s oft-hyped “charisma,” some kind of intangible political magnetism. Sure, Clinton has that — a remarkable looseness and intimacy that draws listeners powerfully into his aura. But the strength of his speech came in its efforts to persuade.
Clinton made arguments. He talked through his reasoning. He went point by point through the case he wanted to make. He kept telling the audience he was talking to them and he wanted them to listen. In an age when so many political speeches are pure acts of rhetoric, full of stirring sentiments but utterly devoid of informational value — when trying to win people over to your point of view is cynically assumed to be futile, so you settle for riling them up instead — Clinton’s felt like a whole different thing. In an era of detergent commercials, he delivered a real political speech.
Will be really interesting to see how Obama’s speech compares more. I suspect more of the lovely rhetoric that doesn’t actually do a lot for me. Anyway, loved seeing Bill Clinton make the case against the Republicans so damn effectively. I suspect that Obama’s team will wisely run on many of these themes Clinton was pushing.