The Six Rhetorical Styles of Today’s Democratic Party

Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden comments in Columbia, S.C., Feb. 28, 2020. (Elizabeth Frantz / Reuters)

As Joe Biden’s livestock stakes get warmer, it’s worth thinking about the different pools from which he could choose a running mate.

W.ord came Thursday that Joe Biden formally asked Amy Klobuchar to submit to an investigation while continuing to select a running mate. Much of Klobuchar’s analysis and other potential VP choices will spur both ideology and identity politics – indeed, as far as the latter is concerned, Biden has already promised to choose a woman. But one thing that political experience should teach us is that the impression politicians make when they speak is just as important to how voters perceive them as their position on the issues. This is reflected in the language they choose, the themes they prefer to emphasize and the topics they are most comfortable with.

For example, Donald Trump was one of the most moderate figures in the 2016 Republican primaries on paper, winning the nomination largely on the basis of self-proclaimed moderate primary voters, but “ moderate ” in Trump’s case was quite different from the cases of, for example, Jon Huntsman. Huntsman’s actual record and platform was rather conservative, but how he communicated with voters was not.

Within each major political party, there are different rhetoric styles that identify a politician and bind or alienate them from certain groups of voters. Of course, the most talented politicians can switch between those styles based on the groups they appeal to. And, of course, the groups change over time: the Jacksonian Democrats once dominated the party, and Jim Webb will likely be the last candidate to speak their language on the stage of a presidential-primary debate. Still, the concept remains useful in thinking through Biden’s livestock stakes. These are the six different “language groups” that exist in the current Democratic Party.

1. The New Deal Liberals: If you’re over forty, you probably remember that New Deal liberalism was the primary language of the Democratic Party. New Deal Liberals can differ a lot in how they have addressed various social and foreign policy issues, but their fundamental framework was the world of the white, ethnic working class – the union hall, the “working man,” the “little man.” Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt, and Tom Daschle were all New Deal liberals; so was Harry Reid to some degree. Their self-image and way of looking at the world, and the voters with whom it speaks, now embarrass many democratic elites, but there are still a surprising number of those voters in the party. Post-election analyzes showed that working-class white voters were still the largest segment of Hillary Clinton’s support for the 2016 general election, and the erosion of support from Bernie Sanders under the same constituency was a major element of his loss in the primaries of 2020.

New Deal liberalism is the native language of Joe Biden. Biden has shifted over the years and has deployed many different types of Democrats, and his actual track record as a Senator from Delaware brings a lot of favors to the state’s major banks, but that’s the way he speaks most at home. While the New Deal Liberals are a dying breed, there are still a few Democrats in office who speak their language, including Amy Klobuchar and Sherrod Brown. Klobuchar’s best stump speech riffs in the primaries recalled her working-class family history and immediately recalled FDR:

There is an old story about Franklin Roosevelt. When he died, they put his body on a train and traveled across America. And a man was sobbing on the side of the tracks with his hat in his hand. And a reporter said to him, sir? Did you know President Roosevelt? Is that why you cry? And the man says no. I didn’t know President Roosevelt, but he knew me.

We will learn a lot about how Biden views his potential presidency through his choice of a running mate. There are some logical arguments for Klobuchar. Choosing her would be a way to ensure that a ticket is in linguistic synchronization. In fact, the entire Biden campaign is a test case for the enduring appeal of this candidate style.

2. The Woke Brigade: The increasing way of speaking among online progressives and on university campuses is ‘awake’. It is a style that now has its own vocabulary with pronouns and adjectives and its own liturgies about complaints. One of the main precepts of being awake is that issues of race, gender and sexual orientation are central to any public policy issue. Several of this year’s presidential candidates – Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro and Kirsten Gillibrand – spoke largely in aroused terms. Warren, in particular, clung to the term “Latinx” and had a marked tendency to be at the forefront of her closing statement on debates, without regard to context. She was never put off by the fact that her real voters were almost all white; this was the language of the faculty lounge in which they wanted to hear the world heard. Harris naturally called Biden more or less a segregationist in his face.

While some of the aroused candidates may have other political assets, the reality is that they speak to the types of voters most likely to appear and still vote Biden in November, so it’s hard to see how to choose one of them as a running mate would contribute to Biden’s coalition.

3. The socialists: An important story about the evolution of the Democratic Party over the past five years is the rise of the “Democratic Socialists.” The differences between them and New Deal liberals on economic issues are often much less dramatic than you might think, but the differences in how they talk about the economy are quite pronounced. It’s actually an old dichotomy, going back to the gap in the American workers’ movement between the unions that were anti-communist during the Cold War (Teamsters, AFL-CIO) and the more radical types who wanted to talk and think in terms of toppling the system instead of just “getting their share” from the bosses. A generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people talking like Bernie Sanders were shaken off the stage by prominent Democrats, who claimed it was just a dirty Republican trick to call them Socialists. The embrace of the socialist label by Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others of their kind is the most prominent symbol of their desire to frame everything in a conspiracy of the company’s power. As much as Biden has to get these voters excited, it’s hard to see how the rhetorical style of a Sanders-esque Democrat can be added to Biden’s ticket without putting one or both in mortal danger.

4. The West wing-ers: Aaron Sorkin has not invented the way of speaking about the American politics with which he is now identified The West Wing; much of it was an amalgamation of the ambitious idealized do-goodism found in the speeches of the Kennedy brothers, Gary Hart and Bill Clinton. But Sorkin gave it a separate brand. West wing Candidates have an irritating tendency to think of all issues as just one side: the idealistic Wonks who use Reason and Data and have good intentions while facing a world full of cartoonish cavemen. Hand in hand with this approach is a great reliance on platitudes designed to provide assurance of how smart the speaker and, by extension, his listeners are. Barack Obama was a master of this form of rhetoric. O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign was built around it, which is one reason why his move to a more aroused language in the presidential race was so shocking and unsuccessful. The main standard bearer of the West wing-ers in 2020 was Pete Buttigieg. Warren, with her mantra “I have a plan for that,” often dabbles West wing-esees between her attacks of wakefulness. Jimmy Carter positioned himself as this kind of candidate in his 1976 campaign and promised a new policy that is fairer and purer than what was before.

As the Obama-Biden ticket proved, and Biden’s camp must know, a marriage between one West wingcandidate and an old-fashioned New Deal Liberal can be a successful partnership.

5. The Ethnic Warders: Another rhetorical style with a long pedigree in the Democratic Party is the ethnic neighborhood leader. As with the Woke Brigade, ethnic guards tend to frame things in racial or ethnic identity, without making themselves the theoretical pretensions of expressing an uninterested, academic concern for justice. “I am here for my people and you are here for yours” is the basic idea. The Congressional Black Caucus, especially the older members, is the strongest redoubt of this kind of rhetoric among contemporary Democrats.

6. The neoliberals: “Neo-liberal” is the Democratic Socialists’ favorite swear term for politicians who make bona fide Democrats through a combination of liberal social views, nod to racial preferences and other vigilance in business, and nanny, but are fundamentally pro-business, pro law enforcement and pro-military. This is the message of Davos and the donor class: maximum freedom for a cosmopolitan elite, supported by a strong preference for public order. While many democratic politicians in practice follow some version of the neoliberal agenda, very few great democratic politicians place their public arguments in consistent neoliberal terms. Mike Bloomberg represents the neoliberal archetype: a billionaire who hates weapons and big soda with the same passion and talks to nobody so small they wouldn’t enjoy it either. Bloomberg’s success at the local level illustrates New York City’s demand for technocratic management and the fear of falling back on public security, but its failure at the national level shows just how unenthusiastic democratic voters are for its message in undiluted form.

All political parties have different language families. At the presidential level, Democrats have had by far the most success with the West wing Style of Rhetoric: Lyndon Johnson in 1964 is truly the only Democrat to win presidential elections with a different rhetorical style since 1948. Biden’s vice-presidential decision can show us how willing he is to abandon that model, and his campaign will test the sustainability of his own older New Deal liberal way of speaking.

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