Whenever I watch a (political) lecture or read a (political) book by Noam Chomsky, I’m always struck by how out of place his rhetorical style seems. Normally you think of charismatic figures as having a really forceful speaking style; Chomsky’s is rambling and dull. The question is begged: do people respond to him because of or in spite of the way he speaks, or is it that the speaking style is simply irrelevant?
I was thinking about this recently because of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s much better than expected showing on Thursday’s general election in the UK. As the election opened, Corbyn was widely thought to be unelectable – and while that was mostly to do with his throwback 1970s Old Labour Socialism, a runner-up complaint was that he’s just not a very electrifying speaker. Like Chomsky, he drones and rambles and only ever talks about issues. There are no quotable one-liners, no belly-chuckle jokes, no stirring rhetoric. He’s just kind of there, and he sticks to script.
In its post-mortem on Theresa May’s Big Setback, the Guardian, in particular, made a point of trying to turn Corbyn’s rhetorical style into a hidden weapon. The fact that he never goes on personal attacks and always just sticks to issues was supposed to have lent him a credibility that May’s (or, really, Boris Johnson’s) more personal politics lacked. Was that right? And if that’s right, is this now the future of campaigning, now that it’s been tested? We’re going to see a tone-down in rhetoric and a return to wonky issues politics?
My personal feeling is that this is likely only right for the left (har har). I suspect that Noam Chomsky’s and Bernie Sanders’ and Jeremy Corbyn’s rhetorical styles ctually are an asset. To them. But I also suspect that people trying to use it on the right wouldn’t be as successful.
I think the reason Noam Chomsky and Jeremy Corbyn work is because people expect the left to be hysterical and overblown. For example, when I asked a Sanders-supporting friend to defend her choice, she never actually got into specifics. It’s nothing to do with the individual policies – she just told me "I’m an idealist – I like to believe, against all evidence, that the world can be better." I didn’t say so (I asked the qeustion, after all), but I found this rather insulting. She implies that whatever it is I’m doing in supporting the Libertarian Party somehow isn’t motivated by wanting to make the world a better place, when in fact it is. It was a kind of humblebragging. She thinks that putting herself down as starry-eyed will somehow cover for the fact that she’s basically just said "it’s because I’m a better person than you."
But she’s not pissing into the wind, here. It’s true that cliche about left-wingers is that their hearts are in the right place, they’re just hopelessly naive. It’s never the fault of their intentions, it’s always just that their policies are impractical, too idealistic, whatever, or that their methods are too constrictive. Speaking for my particular Ayn Rand-reading corner of the room, I guess the most popular line in We, the Living is when Kira tells Andrei she loathes his ideals, and he is stunned.
ANDREI: I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, as so many of our enemies do, that you admire our ideals, but loathe our methods. KIRA: I loathe your ideals.
KIRA: Because I have less in common with you than the enemies who fight you, have. I don’t want to fight for the people, I don’t want to fight against the people, I don’t want to hear of the people. I want to be left alone–to live.
That scene cuts through the fog in a way that very little else you read does. Rand gets, in a way that a lot of other people don’t seem to, that the reason why the left is resilient is because people want to believe it can work, and that’s because they applaud the ideals. If you want to beat the left, you have to take that away.
But hardly anyone does. Most people just concede the moral high ground to the left and then attack them on practicalities.
And I think it’s because of this that Chomsky’s and Corbyn’s and Sanders’ rhetorical styles work. Since everyone buys this narrative that leftists are clueless but well-intentioned, when someone like Chomsky comes along who talks like a policy wonk, it works because it soothes that anxiety. Here’s someone studied, who knows what he’s talking about, people think. See, we’re NOT just airy-fairy dreamers! People with impressive commands of the facts beleive in this stuff! The fact that it sounds unemotional also helps. If you’re worried, like my friend evidently is, that you’re the kind of person who is just too good for the world, then you take comfort in the fact that the person sitting on stage seems unruffled by anything. You’re easily led astray by something shiny, so it’s nice to feel that the speaker isn’t. It’s an opposite ploy, and it works the way understatement always works.
It’s not just that, though. I read a good line from one of the Samizdata commenters recently to the effect that where Obama is the kind of person who shows he’s clever by saying counterintuitive things, Trump is the kind of person who shows he’s clever by saying obvious things. That struck me as a perceptive way to characterize the left-right divide in general. If right-wingers have a weakness, it’s being unsophisticated to a fault. They take too much at face value and so are too prone to hasty generalizations. If left-wingers have a weakness, it’s being sophisiticated to a fault – or rather making a (false) virtue out of sophistication. This leads them to defend all kinds of indefensible stuff, just for the sake of defending the indefensible, because you don’t get sophistication points for defending obvious things. And again, the dry, intellectual speaking style soothes the anxiety this engenders. I think a lot of people on the left make a show of supporting things that in their hearts they don’t really believe. For example, the idea that black people can’t be racist. Lots of left-wingers say this, and they can recite all the intellectual arguments about the implicit power imbalance, but at the end of the day they’re not sure whether they’re convinced. Someone up there at the podium speaking dryly convinces them they made the right call after all, supporting these counterintuitive things. Think of it as a kind of anti-glamor.
None of that will work for the right, because the right has the opposite insecurities. The right’s supposed to be the half of the equation that gives up on ideals for practicality. They’re the "red pill" crowd who thinks they see hard truths that idealist leftists shy away from. This is why puncturing rhetorical taboos plays so ironically well with the side of the aisle conservatives sit on. If no one’s being shocked and no one’s clutching at their pearls, then the emperor might not be naked. But the whole appeal depends on there being a naked emperor that they, with their common sense, can call naked. So, if one’s not there, sometimes they have to invent it – which is why Trump never actually gets punished by his followers for saying outrageous things.
Crudely: left-wingers have a lot to gain by making outrageous things seem commonplace/obvious and comparatively little to gain from making commonplace things seem outrageous. Right-wingers have a lot to gain by making ordinary things seem outrageous, but comparatively little to gain from making outrageous things seem commonplace/obvious. The left-wing dare is to prove your worth by taking an outrageous position and then making it seem like the obvious one to take (because this proves you have sophisticated instincts). That’s what blows a left-winger’s mind.
The left-winger says "We should hand money to people, based on what race they are. Alotting benefits on the basis of race is the only way to not be racist." And everyone sees that it’s outrageous. The right-winger says "well, that’s just fighting fire with fire! Handing people money on the basis of racist is racism." And everyone sees that it’s common sense. What’s tricky, of course, is that sometimes common sense isn’t (sensible), and you really do need to think outside the box. So, just because something is outrageous, it doesn’t follow that it’s actually wrong. Sometimes outrageous is actually what you need. And other times, of course, outrageous is just outrageous, and you need a healthy dose of common sense to cut through the fog. But guessing which is which in what circumstances isn’t really what political figures do. It’s what true leaders do, of course, but those are rare. For the most part, pundits and politicians are just selling their side, and the people they’re talking to just want reassurance that they’ve backed the right horse.
Seen in that light, I think the answer to whether Jeremy Corbyn’s speaking style helped or hurt him in the election has to be "helped him." It seems less likely that the same style would work for a Tory.