Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects on the words spoken in light of our financial crisis. Read his previous OUPblogs here.
A character in Washington Irving’s 1807 work, Salmagundi, once described America as a logocracy, or a government of words. Words created this country, words constituted it, words are necessary in these trying and confusing times because they can calm markets and soothe nerves. But our logocracy was uncharacteristically reticent this past week. President Bush’s two minute speech last Thursday – no questions allowed – offering nothing concrete was anything but an extended fireside chat. The aspirants to his job weren’t particularly loquacious or substantive either. McCain proposed a sack and a commission, while Obama waited to offer a set of ambiguous principles. Bush, McCain and Obama were scrambling to catch up with events that have overtaken them because political and partisan scripts offer only simplistic and rigid cookie cutter solutions to a deliquescent reality. The truth was they didn’t know what to say and they didn’t want to be boxed in.
As our politicians have stood down, the expert bureaucrats have taken over. In our moment of need, our logocracy paused and some believe, rightly so. This is not the time for words, Secretary Henry Paulson seemed to be saying as he met privately with members of congress. As Paulson put it: “”We can spend a lot of time talking about how it happened and how we got here. But we have to get through the night first.” Better well done than well (or nothing) said, the Treasury Secretary seemed to be saying.
That is not to say that Paulson’s $700b proposal for the federal government to buy out the mortgage industry’s bad loans has not met with criticism, and a rising ride of it. Democrats (and some Republicans) want something for Main Street in return for what Wall Street gets, but they won’t get very much. In highlighting the severity of the situation to lawmakers, Paulson was hoping to preempt congressional obstructionism, implying that (Democratic) justice will stand in the way of efficiency. It also allowed him to avoid having to explain away the moral hazard of bailouts to fellow economic conservatives. Now is not the time for pointing fingers, crying injustice, or as Phil Gramm would put it, whining.
Can we trust the expert though? There is a pressing if frightening sense that we must, especially in an election year when being seen as obstructionist may be more politically damaging than doing something/anything. For this reason, congress will be pressured to settle for Paulson’s fait accompli with some minor alterations. How ironic that in a moment of crisis we reject words as obstacles to action, but it is precisely in moments of emergency that democracy especially demands justification and assurance by way of words. This is the paradox of our logocracy.