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Mitch McConnell and the Newspeak of Democracy

McConnell’s talents are now being challenged not just by Democrats, but by the coronavirus.
Mitch McConnell, Mitch McConnell news, news on Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority leader, US Supreme Court, US democracy, Trump coronavirus, Donald Trump, Trump COVID 19, Peter Isackson

Mitch McConnell in Richmond, Kentucky, USA on 10/13/2018. © Shot Stalker / Shutterstock

October 05, 2020 10:22 EDT

US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has the reputation of acting as a powerful unifier of his party’s troops in the Senate. He has demonstrated his ability to convince fellow Republicans of what needs to be done (or prevented from being done) and how to move forward with urgency (or not move at all), as circumstances require.

McConnell, a Republican senator, famously blocked sitting Democratic President Barack Obama’s attempt to nominate Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court after the death of Justice Anthony Scalia in February 2016. He did so on the grounds that it was an election year. Now, McConnell is faced with a similar situation, but this time his aim is to force rapid confirmation of President Donald Trump’s candidate, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, less than a month before a presidential election that risks unseating the Republican president. 

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From the announcement of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death on September 18, the task of pushing through Barrett’s confirmation already appeared to be a daunting task. It would require every bit of talent and energy McConnell is capable of, especially after learning that he was guaranteed only the slimmest of margins in a vote of the full Senate. Still, the odds of success looked good, at least until the nation learned on October 2 that President Trump had tested positive for COVID-19 and would be hospitalized. Worse, two Republican senators also tested positive.

As everyone knows, the valor of great heroes will always be tested by the gods. Sensing the panic that might follow concerning the continuity of government itself, McConnell wasted no time reassuring an anxious nation that everything would continue as planned. After speaking to the president, he reported via Twitter the good news: that the president was healthy enough to govern and that Barrett’s confirmation was still on course.

On Friday, McConnell tweeted: “He’s in good spirits and we talked business — especially how impressed Senators are with the qualifications of Judge Barrett. Full steam ahead with the fair, thorough, timely process that the nominee, the Court, & the country deserve.”

Here is today’s 3D definition permitting to understand McConnell’s vocabulary:

Fair, thorough, timely:

Hypocritical, incomplete, rushed  

Contextual Note

McConnell provides a textbook example of a rhetorical device called a tricolon: “a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses.” Some teachers call it the “rule of three,” observing that three aligned items are “always stronger and more memorable than one.” It is the key to sounding authoritative.

The senator insists that his precipitation, in this case, is “fair” because some people dared to suggest it contradicted the sacred principle he himself had invoked in 2016 to justify delay. At the time, McConnell insisted that only the newly elected president had the legitimacy to nominate a candidate. “The American people are perfectly capable of having their say on this issue, so let’s give them a voice. Let’s let the American people decide,” he said.

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In effect, a US presidential election is the only time the will of the people of the entire nation is expressed. And so, in 2016 democracy prevailed. Trump was elected. McConnell had his way, effectively preventing the confirmation of Judge Garland. Alas, it wasn’t “the people” who offered Trump the keys to the White House but the Electoral College. In their clear majority, the people had voted for Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee. 

So much for fair. What about the idea of thorough? The New York Times reports that “Republican officials said they had no doubt that senators would find a way to muscle through the nomination over Democrats’ protests.” In US culture, the idea of “thoroughness” often implies exactly that: using muscle to overpower any opposition, making the result irreversible. The adversary must be thoroughly defeated. The terminator must be thoroughly terminated.

Finally, “timely” normally contains the idea of optimal timing to produce an acceptable result in the general interest. For McConnell, it seems to mean any timing that achieves his own goals. In the current context, a timely confirmation must take place before November 3. This ensures that even if the will of the people in 2020 results in the election of Democrat Joe Biden, the more sacred will of the Electoral College in 2016 will be honored. The meaning of words sometimes evolves. In 2016, timely meant “not now.” In 2020, it means “immediately.”

Historical Note

Any lucid observer would agree that politicians tend to be disingenuous. Sometimes it is for laudable reasons, such as conveying an optimistic message in dire times to bolster the public’s morale. But more commonly, it reflects the simple fact that most of their public discourse is motivated by their electoral strategy rather than the logic of government or the needs of the people.

This has become accepted as the normal hypocrisy of politicians. Mitch McConnell may be twisting the meaning of words, but he is guilty of nothing more than everyday political hypocrisy. In contrast, Donald Trump is one of those rare politicians who, lacking any serious training in political culture, consistently rises above the habit of everyday hypocrisy by boldly and brazenly prevaricating. Trump will never miss an opportunity to deny the obvious or affirm the absurd. 

President Trump’s success over the past four years may have created a trend that has now infected others. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy demonstrated this trend on October 2 when, in an interview with CNN about Trump’s temporary absence due to COVID-19, he asserted that the president “is going to rely on his surrogates. And unfortunately, one of his surrogates is Vladimir Putin.”

When politicians make statements as comically over the top as this on national television without being challenged by their hosts in the media, the very notion that a stable frame of reference exists in public life risks disappearing irretrievably. What emerges is the impression that democracy and the ritual of elections constitute little more than an entertaining facade, a form not of reality TV but of hyperreality TV, produced by people whose business is to seek, manage and manipulate power. Nothing they say has meaning other than as a badge of power. The more brazen the lying, the more respect they earn for demonstrating their competence in playing with the levers of power.

In recent years, the concept of democracy has come to designate little more than the toolbox successful politicians use to convince the populace that they are fulfilling their will, even when contradicting it. What better illustrates this truth than Brexit in the UK? Theresa May and Boris Johnson, the two prime ministers who succeeded the hapless David Cameron, argued that the official result of the poorly designed and clearly manipulated 2016 referendum asking people to answer “leave” or “remain” to a question no one could understand definitively represented “the will of the people.” Similarly, Trump has consistently claimed that any policy he supports, however absurd, reflects the will of the people who voted in 2016.

In his book, “The Will of the People: A Modern Myth,” political theorist Albert Weale claims that “around the world, political parties and movements – on both the left and on the right – invoke the will of the people.” He compares the idea of “the will of the people” to unicorns, flying horses and the sunken continent of Atlantis.

Gideon Rachman, writing for the Financial Times last year, detected a common thread to Trump’s and Johnson’s approach to governing. He saw their insistence that the result of one election or referendum in 2016 justified every one of their own most extreme policies as “signs that the laws and conventions that underpin liberal democracy are under attack in both the UK and the US, two countries that have long regarded themselves as democratic role models for the world.”

Both the US and the UK are on the brink. We still have no idea of how Brexit will play out in 2021. What happens in the US after November 3 is anybody’s guess, but the result is unlikely to be pretty. Democracy, in its unnatural marriage with capitalism, is reeling from the unexpected structural and economic effects of a pandemic. It has aggravated capitalism’s unbridled tendency to upset human life everywhere in the world. The consequence of that is undeniable: It has become increasingly difficult for any politician to conduct business in a way that is fair, thorough and timely.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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