Last year a video and audio recording caught Donald Trump bragging about his ability to sexually assault women. He then announced on television that he had said it and that he was sorry. Recently, however, he announced that the recording was not “authentic.” When asked about this contradiction, his press person, Sarah Sanders, said that he was really complaining about the incident not being properly reported. When asked which reports she was referring to, she said, “The ones he is complaining about.”
Recently, the Congressional Budget Office announced that the tax plan proposed by Republicans would increase the national debt by at least 1.4 trillion dollars. When informed of that fact, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah replied, “I think they’re wrong.” He offered no explanation for his opinion.
I could go on, but here is the point. Discourse, basic speech, true communication between humans, is meant to contain an implied promise. When I say to my wife, “I am going to the store,” I am impliedly promising her that what I say is true. When I say to my boss, “I have added five more customers,” I am impliedly promising that boss that I have in fact added customers to the business.
There is, however, another form of speech, which classically goes by the name of “rhetoric.” That kind of speech mimics true discourse. In fact, it actually relies on people believing that it is true discourse. But it differs from true discourse in that it does not contain that implied promise of honesty, that implied assertion that what is being said is true. So, for instance, when we negotiate with each other, we often say things that are not true. When we are selling a car, we might say, “I won’t take a dime less than five thousand dollars.” The other person knows that is not true, and proves it by saying, “I won’t give you more than four thousand dollars.” The whole world knows that car is going to get sold for forty-five hundred dollars.
Most of the time, we can easily tell the difference between rhetoric and true discourse, and we accommodate that difference. We listen to the puffery of car dealers and real estate agents, and we try to translate that puffery into what is really meant, and everybody knows this is happening, and there are no hard feelings.
There is, however, one area in which the abandonment of true discourse can do some very serious damage, and that is in the political arena. There is, of course, the puffery of the campaign. “A chicken in every pot” is an old political cliché for outlandish campaign claims. Once the election is over, however, we get down to the brass tacks of how to run our country in accord with our founding ideals.
We have succeeded as a nation precisely because we have had politicians who were willing to engage their opponents in true discourse. Through honest negotiation and discourse, politicians were able to enact programs that provided a fair standard of living for the vast majority of Americans. It was even by the acceptance of true discourse that we began to face the uglier facets of American life — poverty, discrimination, corporate malfeasance, etc. It is hard to forget that awful moment when Robert Kennedy informed a crowd consisting mostly of African-Americans that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Its poignancy lies precisely in the honesty of his discourse with his audience.
It is this commitment to true discourse that has been totally abandoned in recent times and that is most painfully absent from today’s political discourse. At the present moment, this is most obvious in discussions of the Republican tax plan. Nothing could be clearer than that the intent of this plan is to provide greater, and longer lasting, wealth to the already wealthy. The elimination of the estate tax alone makes that undeniable. Yet its proponents continue to refer to it as a tax relief plan for the middle class. When faced with undeniable calculations to the contrary, they either deny it without argument, as Senator Hatch did, or, much worse, they produce pseudo-arguments to support it.
In doing so, these politicians completely, and permanently, throw out the commitment to honesty that is implied in true discourse, and with it they threaten to throw out the possibility of continuing the representative democracy upon which this country was built. What that means for the future of this country is unknown. Tyranny? Revolution? Civil War? All of those are too far in the future to predict. One thing sure: democracy can only succeed when those representing it do so honestly, and it is that honesty which is being totally abandoned.