Eugene Debs: Political Communicator

It would be interesting to see how the public—even the left public—would respond to Eugene V. Debs if he were alive today. Debs was so morally sentimental and personally vulnerable in his rhetoric that it is difficult to predict how audiences would react, especially in a present during which vulnerability is often heavily tempered with irony, sarcasm and even nihilism in order to be digestible. In many ways, such irony and nihilism emerges from an explicit rejection of "liberalism," or soft center-leftism. Ronald Lee and James Andrews explain how Debs has been reappropriated by liberals (as distinct from socialists) as one of their own precisely because of liberal attachment to moral sentiment. By using "the historical narrative's definition of virtue," liberals crowd out radical change. Thus, Lee and Andrews argue that Debs' moralism better serves a contemporary agenda of "business-labor reconciliation" instead of the class war and unapologetically anti-capitalist ontology Debs actually possessed and espoused.  

Another critic points out that Americanrhetoric.com, ranks Debs' speech to the jury following his conviction under the Alien and Sedition Act for his Canton, Ohio anti-war speech "as the 34th most influential and memorable speeches of all time." It is widely acknowledged that "the speech in the courtroom failed at the legal level given the complicity of law and politics in reinforcing the power of the state.” Yet, something greater was at stake, and it is that very higher idealism which might succeed as political rhetoric right here and right now if someone emerged possessing Debs' ethos, which he himself had gained via creating "tropes of working class rhetoric that resonated with a wider audience." Indeed, losing in court was a huge rhetorical advantage to Debs' own movement at the time, and it is likely that the same events today would have been similarly appealing to audiences, given unprecedented and contemporary cynicism about the legitimacy of courts under neocolonial capitalism. Yet, an important difference to consider is that, "Debs never doubted that justice was on his side, despite the contrary conclusions of a closed political and legal system." In 2021, even committed leftists and progressives are hesitant to believe if not outright disbelieving that even a hypothetical court would provide true justice. What Debs might have treated as an aberration of capitalism is now seen by a significant section of today's society as an irredeemable feature of governance generally. 

More than one rhetorical scholar has highlighted that Debs understood messaging. One article even suggests Debs used what we might recognize as "modern" campaign tactics, and specifically in his 1912 presidential race where he utilized easy-to-communicate messaging, a non-condescending simplification of complex German political theory suitable for Americans. Debs was different from other radicals: "He was able to translate the Marxist idea of socialism into traditional American language; he used Lockean language as a tool to explain to common Americans socialist thought."  This included appeals to individualism and natural law. Capitalism, he argued, was a threat to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

The results of Debs' messaging are clear. Third party candidates generally struggle to get more than a few thousand votes, even for president. Only three third party candidates have ever exceeded five percent of the vote. Debs was one of them, attaining six percent of the vote in a race against Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft, and Teddy Roosevelt—a crowded and notoriety-saturated field. Debs had nearly a million votes campaigning both as a free man and as an incarcerated one. He had a devoted following and even his enemies acknowledged his virtues and how tough it was to go up against him. Above all, Debs' deep faith in humanity, and his abiding loyalty to the marginalized and downtrodden, made him a living argument for socialism rather than simply another firebrand with a manifesto. Debs had ethos, forged through his kinship with the least powerful people including the incarcerated. 

I think understanding Debs rhetorically and politically requires analysing his statement to the court from a point earlier than that chosen by most. Debs statement begins with "kinship," or relatedness. "Your Honor," he says, "years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free” (emphasis added). In these opening lines, Debs is emphatically acknowledging that he is not any better than anyone else. And that, unlike some of the more flowery morality often identified in his rhetoric, remains an acceptable sign of virtuosity even today. 

Similarly, Debs' very important statement on race relations critiques whiteness in a way that intentionally and decisively lifts up the agency of Black voices. "The whole history of the Negro race in America is one to make the white race blush scarlet with shame," Debs writes, before continuing on to point out that the seizure of humans from Africa for the sake of chattel slavery had so dehumanized Black people as to render them free from any debt to the white race, even the old cannard of "gratitude" for those white people who fought for emancipation. Debs had been a railroad worker and so he used the phrase “'Jim Crow' car" to describe the post-emancipation treatment of Black people. In the end, "for the improvement [African Americans have] been able to make under such inhuman and degrading conditions he is certainly under no obligation to his former white slave-drivers—his present white persecutors." Ultimately, Black people do not owe white people anything in the context of race relations; instead, Debs said, we owe each other solidarity as workers.

Debs as a political communicator would, perhaps, do better today than some might initially expect. Yes, he was at times excessively sentimental in the language he chose to use, but he was also self-deprecating, critical of both his race and gender and clear in his admittance of his own moral weaknesses, all in an effort to lift up the working class in its entirety. In 2021, marginalized communities and poor people—those living most precariously—might appreciate Debs' combination of utopian hope, commitment to struggle and solidarity and clear criticism of whiteness and cis-gender patriarchy. 

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In Political Communication, We Always Seem to Be Fighting a War

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Communication specialists are often employed to guide their clients through problems and obstacles, whether personal, professional, political or otherwise. Given the demands of such moments, it is understandable that rhetoric is used (especially in political communication) to invoke a sense of urgency, that threat or promise which must be addressed quickly and powerfully. Very often, this rhetoric utilizes the metaphors of war and fighting and constructs an enemy who is imbued with a power and ruthlessness that designates them as a threat. This threat is then used to motivate collective action. 

One academic paper notes: "The domain of war is employed metaphorically for all types of human struggle and conflict. War metaphors have become an indispensable part of the English language over hundreds of years, since more and more war terms like besiege, fight for, win out, attack, battle and fend off are widely used by ordinary people in everyday language." 

Many scholars and activists are unhappy with the ubiquity of war metaphors. In particular, they are unhappy with how the metaphors (as expected) apply descriptions of warfighting to non-war contexts in a way that supercharges them and riles up audiences. Much has been written about the use of those metaphors, for example, in health care. Particularly in "biomedicine, including HIV research," the language reflects a "mindset that regards pathogens as enemies to be defeated." Philosopher Susan Sontag is especially critical of the use of the military metaphor in health care, saying “It overmobilizes, it overdescribes, and it powerfully contributes to the excommunicating and stigmatizing of the ill." 

But while the vast majority of analysis on military and warfighting metaphors concludes negatively or at least pessimistically about the practice, some scholars push back against that generalization. Several of the authors both critical of and in defense of military metaphors point out the usefulness of those metaphors in motivating people in times of adversity. What differs, however, is their judgement on whether the use of such figurative language in this way is problematic, and whether it necessarily demonizes or dehumanizes an actual enemy. 

In a research paper released in January of this year, Eunice Castro Seixas takes on the use of war metaphors in political communication around the Covid-19 crisis. Seixas notes that many others have taken on that metaphor critically, suggesting that its use, and the militarization of discourse in general, is a negative thing. Seixas doesn't necessarily disagree that in general, war metaphors probably connote aggression and negativity, or at least the demonization of an enemy. But Seixas concludes a little differently, urging "caution against previous generalized criticisms of the war metaphor as inherently dangerous and damaging." Instead, in certain contexts, the metaphor is constructive and even optimistic without being dehumanizing towards an enemy subject: "the war metaphor is often used for the pursuit of specific goals of crisis communication and management such as: preparing the public for hard times, persuading the population to change their behavior and bolstering resilience and self-efficacy. These are messages that, while using the war metaphor, place the emphasis on adaptation to hard times, rather than on fighting an 'invisible enemy.'" Seixas also acknowledges that it matters where such discourse is used and lands. Germany might reject the use of war metaphors because it is sensitive to being labeled a warlike nation after its role as aggressor in the First and Second World Wars. States rising up out of colonialism, or overcoming apartheid, might be more comfortable with the metaphor because it connects to the optimism of recent liberatory victories. 

Thus, using militaristic language to mobilize people doesn't necessarily mean vilifying an enemy, encouraging violence against specific people, or painting all conflicts as only resolvable through the use of force. What is clear, though, is that war metaphors underscore urgency. In urgent situations, therefore, is it okay to use language that alludes to war? And, does it serve us to use urgency as the starting point of so much discourse, particularly political discourse? 

Asking these questions pushes us deeper into the foundations of our rhetoric than the question of whether we need an enemy. The object of concern now becomes, why do we feel a need to construct everything as urgent? Why do we always feel the need to mobilize ourselves and others? Is this a carry-over from the fight-or-flight patterns that developed in our prehistory? Obviously some things really are urgent, but when we use that urgency as a template for all political activity and progress, is that cause for concern?

Philosophers like Paul Virilio have questioned Western metaphysics and technology and our obsession with speed, acceleration and efficiency, the way everything is defined according to use value. This necessitates further questioning about why everything in politics is so urgent, why we have to solve every problem now. Different thinkers have different answers. For Martin Heidegger, it's "technological thinking" that trades off with a more meditative view of the world. For Marxists and other theorists of capitalism, it's the mechanization and commodification of time as well as alienation of human activity

All of this analysis seems to suggest that we shouldn't reject out of hand any particular metaphorical strategy in political communication, except, of course, strategies that really do dehumanize or degrade other humans. Military mobilization may be appropriate if it doesn't put other people in danger. Calling our struggle against a disease or an economic crisis a "war" might be inelegant, but pragmatic and appropriate. What we should keep an eye out for, though, is whether we are being urgent and alarmist as a default, rather than in response to genuinely urgent and alarming problems. It's okay for us, as political communication practitioners, to point out the times when the drive to urgency is not appropriate. Because sure, our communication strategies are driven by our clients, but there's a reason they come to us for advice. 


Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the Chicago Police Department, and Public Communication

When a Chicago cop shot and killed 13 year-old Adam Toledo, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially supported CPD's and States Attorneys' declaration that Toledo had been armed. But Adam Toledo did not have a gun in his hand when he was shot, which the video makes clear. Lightfoot's blunder tells us a lot about the difficulties in leaders' public communication when having to speak for, cheerlead, or otherwise defend powerful police forces and their way of doing things. 

New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio's struggles with NYPD are the stuff of legend, and have raised questions about what police are allowed to do in response to criticism from elected officials. Policing itself is political, and the politics of the police clash with the policies of municipal governments in major cities throughout the United States. Lightfoot's relationship with CPD isn’t any different. 

It's unlikely that the Mayor would deliberately lie about this even if she had wanted to appease the CPD. But her response was about as bad as it could be in the wake of such a genuine tragedy. That the murder and Lightfoot's public misstep happened atop a sharp upswing in especially offensive police killings and near-killings, all during the trial of Derek Chauvin for killing George Floyd, only added fuel to the fire. 

Though not the primary issue within this breakdown — policing, generally — it is notably that political communications specialists have continued to fail so atrociously throughout the past year. Importantly, this is related to, rather than separate from, the failures going on in U.S. policing. 

A 152-page report released just eight weeks ago described, as the Washington Post put it, "a plague of communication breakdowns" in the Lightfoot administration. And a brand new story by ProPublica's Mick Dumke describes Lightfoot as impatient and overly critical of well-meaning and admired city leaders like Andre Vasquez, a first-term alderman with a pressing agenda to help homeless and soon-to-be-evicted city residents. In one meeting, the Mayor attacked Vasquez for over a minute in order to minimize his request for emergency rental assistance. Lightfoot said the issue wasn't "a good use of our time," a statement of remarkable arrogance and aloofness coming from someone who ran on a progressive agenda.

But Mayor Lightfoot may be turning a corner after hitting rock bottom on both the shooting of Adam Toledo and another matter: the inexcusably brutal and mistaken police raid at the home of social worker Anjanette Young in 2019 which occurred before Lightfoot took office as Mayor. Cops raided Young's home based on incorrect information. Naked and then partially covered, Young kept insisting they had the wrong place, and they did. A series of misjudgments and mishandlings in the city legal department — which Lightfoot says she was "blindsided" by — soon followed. City attorneys tried to block the video from being shown to the public. Top attorney Mark Flessner was forced to resign. Eventually Young sued both the police and the Mayor, alleging a (very believable) "conspiracy and cover up between the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Office of Police Accountability and the Mayor’s Office.”

In many ways, Lightfoot's initial response to the police assault of Anjanette Young presaged her response to the shooting of Adam Toledo. But with the Young catastrophe, she has changed course and done so even though she is getting sued and would likely be better off if she were to simply stop talking about it. Skeptics might say that this apology only came when it became clear that Ms. Young intended to sue the city and the CPD. That lawsuit has now commenced. Perhaps this strategy was created to place blame on CPD, which it certainly has coming given its history. Lightfoot has also "falsely said her administration had not received a Freedom of Information Act request from Young." Still, I'm noticing in Lightfoot's language a more open level of contrition. Using words like "deeply sorry" and "humiliation and trauma" make clear the Mayor's intention to read the incident as reality. "It simply should not have happened," Lightfoot said, conceding some ground that might even be used against the city in the lawsuit. 

The Mayor also describes her own interpersonal reaction to the video, which she says she watched "in absolute horror. I showed it to my wife. We both thought about what could happen to us if we were in her circumstance." Even if that's not true, it builds a sense of empathy. Most importantly, Lightfoot says "this happens to Black and Brown people disproportionately." This is an acknowledgement that police brutality is systemic and racist, something that even liberal mayors in large cities have been reluctant to say historically. 

In many ways, the tasks and skills of a successful municipal political candidate don’t always translate to skills in office. For example, being able to effectively communicate with potential voters — maybe with the help of data append services like Accurate Append — doesn’t automatically translate to transparency and accountability during times of crisis or atrocity. What Lightfoot needs is advisors and staff who can keep her accountable to both macro data on the Chicago electorate and micro situations like "reading the room" on fundamental moral issues like policing. 

Importantly, at the root of this all is not Lori Lightfoot’s own investment in changing how policing is done, or how to help struggling Chicagoans, or anything else. It's about whether her constituents can effectively pressure her to advocate for their interests regardless of her own.