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Political Discourse Suffers From Combative Analogy
By Damon Circosta
Published: Feb. 7, 2011
RALEIGH - After last month's shooting in Arizona where six people died and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was wounded, there was a nearly universal notion that we should put an end to violent rhetoric and warlike metaphor in our politics. Seemingly overnight it became politically risky to talk of “shooting down legislation” or “killing a bill.”
Trying to elevate our rhetoric is no simple task. Over the years we have come to increasingly rely on heavier, more shocking turns of phrase. When one expression quits working we escalate to the next in a never-ending “arms race” of allegory. If you are a politician who opposes legislation you are more likely to get people to pay attention if you say you would like to "strangle that bill in its infancy" rather than merely opposing it.
Combat metaphors and violent language aren't the only way to cheapen our politics. Much of our news coverage likens politics to sports. We refer to the “horserace” of an election with the winner being "first past the post."
We talk of our political parties as two teams taking the field, one with a red jersey, the other blue. Tough policy decisions are “jump balls” and procedural votes amount to “sparring.”
Football is an especially abundant source of political metaphors. Maybe that’s why several prominent football players, from Jack Kemp to Heath Shuler, have served in Congress.
If you close your eyes during the Super Bowl and someone switches over to CNN you might not be able to tell the difference. Candidates talk about “tackling” tough issues and a campaign with lots of field supporters is said to have a "good ground game.” Politicians are always trying to make an “end run” around somebody. Even the presidential nuclear codes are carried around in a briefcase called “the football.”
So what does it matter if our political language is a bit rough or our elections are equated with sports?
It turns out that the words we use and the metaphors we choose are important. They give us clues to the underlying sentiment one is trying to convey. While we might not be consciously equating the political field with an actual battlefield, our metaphorical mind says otherwise. By relying almost entirely on the vocabulary of sports and combat for our political dialogue, we can lose sight of what a democracy is really supposed to be about.
Both war and politics are essentially zero-sum equations. In order for there to be a winner, there has to be a loser. Not so with our democracy.
At its very best, our system of government can be a place where we come together to forge solutions to our most perplexing problems. Even if we can't divine a way forward that benefits everyone, we can come to mutually agreeable compromises. At the very heart of our democracy is the notion that we can work together to settle our disputes.
If we choose to talk about politics only in terms of competition it is easy to forget that people who disagree with our policy positions aren’t really on the other team. They are not an opposing army who must be vanquished.
By such extensive reliance on war and sports for our political dictionary, we can lose sight of the fact that our democracy is more than just two-sided battles for supremacy.