In 1939, just months before WWII broke out with Germany’s invasion of Poland, rhetorician Kenneth Burke wrote a very detailed book review of Mein Kampf. It was Burke’s attempt to understand how Hitler had “swung a great people into his wake.” At the time, Germany was one of the most literate, highly-educated countries in Europe, and still they’d bought Hitler’s snakeoil, and they would go on to buy a lot more of it.
Burke’s review is still impressively valuable for understanding Hitler’s rhetoric more than 80 years later, but there are a few lines that are also insightful for our present political moment. Perhaps none more so than this:
The yearning for unity is so great that people are always willing to meet you halfway if you will give it to them by fiat, by flat statement, regardless of the facts.
Burke was talking about Hitler’s seemingly magical ability to convince Germans to invest their faith in his vision of the world. But the insight is, I think, also useful for thinking about how 2020 Democratic primary politics has played out, culminating (so far) in Joe Biden’s Super Tuesday triumphs.
For the past year, as record numbers of candidates have entered the Democratic primary, members of the party, pundits, and engaged observers (and frankly, a lot of disengaged observers, as well), have tacked between two argumentative extremes. Not “Progressive” vs. “Moderate.” Rather, “Vote Blue No Matter Who” and existential despair.
“Vote Blue No Matter Who” is the argument for unity. In Burke’s terms, it’s a unification device—a rhetorical device that is intended to bring people with competing (or even conflicting) interests together under the same banner. The best known of Hitler’s was anti-Semitism, but unification devices are obviously not all hateful and evil. They’re how coalitions get built rhetorically.
Not surprisingly, the other Democratic extreme—existential despair—doesn’t have a simple slogan. This is as we might expect because it’s a concern about chaos. It’s really the argument that the party is being torn apart and can never recover. One of the common forms this argument has taken recently can be seeing in shadow of Mike Bloomberg’s Tweet about suspending his campaign.
The implication, of course, is that the Democratic party is fractured and unstable, and Old Joe is the unifying candidate. That is, I think, the central takeaway from the Super Tuesday results. In huge numbers, Democratic voters cast their ballots for Joe Biden. It’s not necessarily that he gave them unity by fiat or flat statement, but he is identified very closely with the last time that many Democratic voters felt unified.
There are factual reasons to believe that unity under Obama was significantly more complicated than the memory of it. There is also ample evidence to suggest that people want more radical policies than Obama’s. But that almost doesn’t matter when people are looking for certainty and/or stability.
The fact is, people are constitutionally uncomfortable with uncertainty. It’s axiomatic in many social sciences, for instance, that people tend to seek stability and certainty. That’s at least part of the reason for the persistence of cultural and religious traditions even among people who have exited a culture or tradition.
But “Blue No Matter Who” is really unsatisfying for a lot of voters of all stripes because different candidates represent ideas that are sincerely objectionable to people who support other candidates. For what it’s worth, I think that’s a desirable aspect of the Democratic party, but it’s nevertheless a source of significant stress. That’s a future post. My point here is that, given the profound instability of the past 4 years under Trump, Democratic voters—especially the ones facing real, genuine consequences for their lives and well-being—are desperate for stability in the party that they hope will stop Trump.
In many people’s minds, centrism is a proxy for stability. That’s what Joe Biden represents. That’s why I think he did so well last night.
To be clear, I think most voters are keenly aware that Biden’s no guarantee against Trump’s instability. But what he does seem to represent for a lot of voters is significant stability among the Democrats. And if he can stabilize the party, the hope is that he’ll stabilize the country and the world.
By contrast, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are chaos candidates. Full disclosure: I have been fully behind Elizabeth Warren from the moment she announced her candidacy, and I largely agree with a lot of Bernie’s policies. But both Warren and Sanders have made a certain kind of chaos central to their campaigns—“revolution” and “big, structural change” are arguments for major change. You can’t have that kind of change without some level of chaos (even if it is managed chaos).
For what it’s worth, I think Sanders and Warren are (1) right about the kinds of change the country needs, and (2) not nearly as chaotic as they’re made out to be by their opponents. Nevertheless, if what you’re looking for is stability in your candidate and party, they’re not selling it. That’s by design, so it is not unreasonable to see a vote for one of them as a vote for troubling the waters, not calming them. Again, this is particularly relevant within the party.
Burke has another claim that may be illuminating on this point. He writes:
People so dislike the idea of internal division that, where there is real internal division, their dislike can easily be turned against the man or group who would so much as name it, let alone proposing to act upon it. Their natural and justified resentment against internal division itself, is turned against the diagnostician who states it as a fact. This diagnostician, it is felt, is the cause of the disunity s/he named.
It’s a fancy way of naming the tendency to kill the messenger for an undesirable message, but Burke’s point is that the tendency exists and has serious implications for persuasion.
If what Democratic voters want is stability within the party, which they believe provides the strongest chance for stability in the country and the world, then the messenger who points out interparty instability can quickly become identified as “the cause of the disunity s/he named.” Chaos candidates, almost by definition, are the ones who point out instability, and no one has been more vocal about pointing out problems in the party than Sanders.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see this tendency playing out in the primary so far, particularly in the disappointing results for Sanders and Warren and in the unexpectedly robust results for Biden (and, frankly, Buttigieg). Nevertheless, I suspect this tendency to confuse the diagnostician for the cause of the diagnosis will have some effect through the convention. Since I’m too dumb not to try to predict what those effects will be, I’m going to guess they’ll be about what unification devices will allow the Progressive and Moderate wings to continue to co-exist. It remains to be seen if that can happen.