The rhetoric of tough talk

Politicians love to appear tough. Sometimes,
this means saying things that we don’t want to hear, dealing in hard
truths. Or so they claim at least.

There have been two prominent examples of such rhetoric in recent weeks. In the UK, Labour leader Ed Miliband was booed
(although perhaps not as much as the media would have us believe) at
the TUC conference. What bought about this reaction? This passage from Miliband’s speech drew particular ire:

I
fully understand why millions of decent public sector workers feel
angry. But while negotiations were going on, I do believe it was a
mistake for strikes to happen. I continue to believe that. But what we
need now is meaningful negotiation to prevent further confrontation over
the autumn.

In trade union baiting of this kind,
Miliband was following a well-trodden path. Tony Blair never seemed more
comfortable than when lecturing the Labour Party, his brothers and
sisters in the international social democratic family, or the union
movement on the need to modernize or die.

Compare this with the second example of a tough talking politician. As noted in Slate
Rick Perry clearly likes to shoot from the hip. In the Republican
Presidential nomination debate in Tampa, Florida, when quizzed on some
of his more acerbic comments, he replied:

There
may be someone who is an established Republican who circulates in the
cocktail circuit that would find some of my rhetoric to be inflammatory
or what have you, but I’m really talking to the American citizen out
there… I think American citizens are just tired of this political
correctness and politicians who are tiptoeing around important issues.
They want a decisive leader.

Both politicians claim
to be straight talking, delivering unpalatable truths. Yet there is a
world of difference in the political strategies they are pursuing.
Miliband seems to be deliberately provoking his (actual) audience, in
order to disseminate a message to the wider public – alienating his
party base to reach out to floating voters. In contrast, Perry’s version
of the truth seems to be pandering to rather than challenging the
ideologues in his party.

There is an obvious explanation for this
difference, of course. Perry is now competing in a party-based primary
election. He has to win that vote in order to go before the national
electorate, so it is hardly surprising his definition of truth telling
is inline with party doctrine. Miliband has essentially gone beyond that
stage, winning the Labour leadership in September 2010. Now he needs to
talk to a national electorate.

But maybe there is also a more
interesting story here, and other patterns could emerge with a bigger
sample of tough talking politicians. It would be interesting, for
example, to note whether left-wing politicians are more prone to
attacking their own parties than those on the right (maybe because of
some internalised version of Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment)? If this were the case, it would not be very surprising.

The
past thirty years have seen neo-liberal ideologies created on the
centre-right becoming political orthodoxy across much of the western
world. Parties of the left have thus found it far more necessary to
overtly reject their historic ideologies, which seemed the antithesis of
the so-called centre ground. It is possible that this pattern, if it
existed, represents a reversal of previous patterns of “truth telling”
in the 50s, 60s and 70s, when collectivist ideologies were more
dominant, and it would have been politicians on the right who were
required to attack their political positions.

But one thing is certain – beware of politicians claiming to tell hard truths. They almost certainly have an agenda.

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