My fellow barbarians: The dumbing of Americans and their campaign speeches
Two days ago, the August 31 edition of the PBS program Need to Know concluded with a brief video retrospective of American political convention speeches from the last century:
From William Jennings Bryan to FDR to Adlai Stevenson to Barack Obama, anchor Jeff Greenfield takes a look at the convention speeches that propelled some politicians into the limelight, and some even to their party’s nomination.
At the end of the segment, host Greenfield offers a sobering observation about a striking change in the intellectual level of these speeches over the past several decades, as illustrated by something President Kennedy — then candidate Kennedy — said in his nomination acceptance address at the 1960 Democratic National Convention:
There’s one more fascinating note about such speeches that’s not exactly encouraging about how politicians once regarded their audiences — that is, us — and how they might regard us now. Listen to this excerpt from John Kennedy’s 1960 speech where he’s tweaking Richard Nixon by comparing him to other Richards as an unworthy successor:
For just as historians tell us that Richard the First was not fit to fill the shoes of the bold Henry the Second, and that Richard Cromwell was not fit to wear the mantle of his uncle, they might add in future years that Richard Nixon did not measure up to the footsteps of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Now, can you imagine a Presidential nominee today trusting in his audience to understand these references to British history from the 12th and 17th centuries? I can almost hear his media advisers saying, “If you want to mention a Richard, try Little Richard.”
From Greenfield’s tone and wording, it’s unclear whether he’s laying the responsibility for this rhetorical dumbing down on America’s politicians, for failing to trust their audience’s intellect, education, and historical awareness, or on the audience themselves for being increasingly and authentically untrustworthy in these matters. What’s clear, though, is that something has indeed changed, and changed drastically, in the intellectual level of American political speech and general public discourse in the last 50 years, and that this has been accompanied, caused, produced, and/or exemplified by a generalized intellectual, social, economic, and cultural shift of seismic magnitude. This period of enormous advances in (to name just two areas) civil rights legislation and technological expertise has also seen a kind of cratering of the intellectual center and a society-wide stratification into two classes consisting of an increasingly isolated and rarefied educated elite on top and a burgeoning “great unwashed” underclass on the bottom.
What’s also clear is that the current season of political speechifying on the road to the November presidential election is taking place within this context, and that we should make a habit of paying attention to the rhetoric being used and the audience being targeted whenever candidates and their supporters speak, because they’re all aware of this ominous late-imperial evolutionary shift in the American polis, even as they themselves are caught in its grip, and are being used as mouthpieces for its furtherance.