The failure of BIG speeches

Big set-piece speeches like today’s US State of the Union address almost always let the public down in direct proportion to the degree to which they are over-hyped.

A piece by Matt Welch in Reason takes a cynical look at the “cycle of hype and forgetfulness” between these speeches. He says the political elite and pundits expect much from the speeches, read too much into them, then forget to check whether the lofty objectives are ever reached.

It’s not just that presidential speeches all tend to sound the same, with their calls for “energy independence” and hosannahs to America’s leadership of the free world. But the repeated failure of grand legislative schemes, the persistent references to underperforming areas of American life (usually in provinces, like education, that are dominated by the government), and the relentless rhetorical urgency to act now for the sake of action, all remind us that politics is a messy and generally ineffective way of addressing problems, and that politicians are not a small bit ridiculous.

The reference to “grand legislative schemes” struck a chord with me. It’s exactly what gets outlined in these sorts of speeches, and exactly what rarely eventuates. 

The trouble with set-piece and over-hyped speeches is that they are rhetorical mountains for politicians.

Rather than creating a mountainous speech, filled with clear meaning, challenging thoughts and creative ideas, politicians attempt to climb the mountain put in front of them.

Political speeches, particularly set-piece ones, fail because expectations are too high, and politicians are poorly equipped.

Attempting to reach the high peaks of aspiration, imagination and leadership, the only language and ideas within reach of most politicians are vacuous truisms. 

Take just two from Obama’s speech;

  1. “We move forward when we do so together”.
  2. “Let’s agree now to… always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America.”

Great. We all agree to those. But only because they can mean either nothing, or we can turn them to our own meaning.

The real job of rhetoric is to make these phrases take on very specific meaning. And meaning that is persuasive. 

Most politicians are scared of meaning. They’re scared to risk people disagreeing. Sometimes they think they’re being clever by disguising their meaning beneath platitudes.

Either way, disguising or avoiding meaning is not successful communication.

The State of the Union appears to have been too climb a communication mountain for many Presidents. Even Chief Justice John Roberts was moved to say “the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I’m not sure why we’re there.”

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