Rhetoric in Political Circles: What America Can Learn From France

The current political dialogue in the United States is ultimately counter-productive.

As a European living in the United States, I have observed the differences in political debates on both sides of the Atlantic. Since the election of President Obama, I have perceived a change in the narratives and actions in US political debates, not only in Washington, but also amongst average citizens. In Europe, despite all the physical violence in Britain and Greece, and public dissatisfaction these countries as well as in France, Spain, and Italy, it seems that violent rhetoric directed at intellectuals has been toned down. Why so

Recently, I have been struck by the harsh rhetoric of political debates in the US, particularly in what I would call a witch-hunt orchestrated against intellectuals. One of the most obvious recent cases was the pejorative crucifixion of Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and current columnist for the New York Times, by the ultra-conservatives in response to his column questioning the policy choices made by President Bush following the 9/11 events. These attacks were extremely shocking considering the nature of his writing and thoughts. Other examples of the demonization of intellectuals in the US are the popular attacks on President Obama for being “too educated” on account of his Harvard diploma. Being an intellectual in the US has become some sort of a social felony because questioning the establishment is antithetical to the American way of life. Such demonization of the world of academia is not, contrarily, a part of the French political and middle class culture.

Today, the American political debate revolves around two distinct ideologies: on one side, privatization and the dismantling of the power of the federal government, and a much more isolationist and unilateralist foreign policy; on the other side, a belief in the role of the government in maintaining social welfare and active role of the government in boosting the economy in times of crisis. The political debate in America can be summarized by the infamous statement made by President Bush on the war on terror, “you are either with us or against us.” In France, the political spectrum is much wider. However, broader is not necessarily synonymous with “better.” Outside of the extremes, the mainstream right and left wing parties do not diverge much on their policies. True, the French right would seek for more tax breaks and a lesser welfare state. The left wing would focus much more on strengthening the welfare state and increasing taxes. However, in French political narratives there is a lesser degree of stigmatization. However, the political debate remains much more civilized and respectful in France in comparison to the United States.

Civil societies on both sides of the pond, such as the Tea Party (in its early stage), les Indignés in France, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in American mega-cities offer a certain balance to the official narratives until they reach extremism. Strikes and mass movements against governmental policies have almost a cultural dimension to its political and economical demands in Western Europe, and especially France. The US does not have so much of this culture of strike. In the US, public concerns tend to be more specialized around one issue such as anti-abortion, gay rights, and so forth. In Europe, protests are based significantly upon general societal demands such as retirement policies, economic policies, and reform of universities. The broadness of the demands increases the support for the movement. In contrast, the American model is much more contentious, as one is either for or against the issue. This statement can be illustrated by the youngest political movement in America: Occupy Wall Street. The demands of the protestors are so broad that they can touch anybody in a given society, yet many media outlets have demonized the movement by claiming that the protestors have no clear demands. The confusion around this movement is connected by the large demand of a fair society and a better redistribution of wealth. Americans have not often been exposed to this type of movement before. Ultra-conservatives and Republicans have described the members of Occupy Wall Street as hippies and socialists.

Socialism is also a focal point in American politics. As opposed to Western Europe, wherein socialism is an acceptable and respectable political choice, in America, socialism is a dirty word for historical and cultural reasons. For over half a century, the greatest threat to US hegemony was the Soviet Union. America’s raison d’être, and the motivation behind its societal, cultural, and foreign policy choices were shaped by the fight against communism. The terms socialism and communism are seen as interchangeable, which is a considerable mistake, but a Machiavellian political move that effectively blocks any discussion of the true nature of socialism. Sadly, socialism has increasingly been as associated with Nazism, which is an absolute aberration.

To go back to the original question: why is the American political debate more violent than the European? Several reasons could be pinpointed. First, the media is partly to blame. In France, the media is not as biased as it is in the US In the US, networks such as Fox News, MSNBC, and others have clear political agendas. A good example of bias in the media is Fox News’ history of hosting television shows for Republican presidential hopefuls like Michael Huckabee and Sarah Palin (however, her show has been recently cancelled). So far, France has not seen this trend of media groups pushing for a clear ideology. The second element is the nature of American politics as being issue driven as opposed to more general. Issues addressed in American circles are divisive by nature – gay rights, sexual rights, religious freedom, and arms control; thus, unity is often not possible because individuals often fall on one or the other side of the political debate. There is not a space for moderation in American politics.  The last factor is linked to religion. Europe is comprised of many secular countries (France, Spain, and Greece are prime examples) which maintain a clear separation between politics and religious faith. American political circles are driven by all sorts of evangelical faiths, which influence policy-making. The current Republican presidential candidates (Rick Perry, Mitt Romney, and Michele Bachmann) are not afraid to expose their faith and connect their faith to their political platforms. Politics is already divisive by nature, so integration religion is just adding fuel to the fire

There is no obvious solution, but mudslinging in political debate, as well as demonizing the intellectual elite has never been the right approach, especially in a democratic system. It could seem a valuable asset for short-term political gain, but can also create destructive precedent and ultimately weaken the roots of democracy. European history is full of violence in politics — America should learn from its lessons before it is too late.

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