Language Politics

By Nicholas Fleisher

Care and feeding of obstructionism

Salon’s Steve Kornacki today ponders the success of Republican Congressional obstructionism. He writes, “since the economy is miserable, swing voters are now inclined to embrace views that blame Obama.” In order to justify the blocking of presidential initiatives—even ones with broad popular support—Republicans thus need only to point out those initiatives’ association with Obama.

In this, they are aided by the conflict- and horserace-obsessed political media. Consider the two headlines Kornacki cites:

“Senate GOP kills Obama’s plan to subsidize hiring of teachers, first responders” (AP)

“Republicans block popular piece of Obama jobs bill” (Reuters)

While the Reuters headline notes the popularity of the relevant portion of the plan, they both make explicit reference to the fact that the plan is Obama’s. Any criticism the GOP might court by blocking a popular piece of legislation (“why would they do that?”) is thus nullified by the mention of that legislation’s connection to Obama (“same old, same old: they can’t work together”). These headlines are steeped in the logic of political conflict. The economic merits of the plan, such as they may be, belong to a completely different rhetorical universe and are not even contemplated here.

I thus do not share Kornacki’s strained attempt at a sanguine conclusion: “It seems conceivable that a drumbeat of these sorts of headlines could, over time, penetrate the consciousness of some of the swing voters who are instinctively inclined to blame Obama over the GOP.” On the contrary, with the mainstream media doing the GOP’s rhetorical work for it, the drumbeat of such headlines only further entrenches the political cynicism and apathy that allow obstructionism to flourish in the first place.

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