Posted by: George | June 16, 2012

Politics and the Unmasking of Motives

In the June 15, 2012, issue of the New York Times, Helene Cooper and Trip Gabriel reported on President Obama’s speech on immigration, delivered the same day from the Rose Garden. They wrote: “In many ways, President Obama’s unilateral shift in immigration policy was a bluntly political move, a play for a key voting bloc in the states that will decide whether he gets another term. But as political moves go, it held the potential for considerable payoff.”

The reporters, in the article, essential say that Obama is being political by playing to Hispanic voters, who may very well decide the election. Obama has not delivered on promises he made to Hispanics, and Romney was forced far to the right on immigration issues during the Republican primaries. So, Obama is being political by trying to look like he is finally delivering on his promises and forcing Romney (and other Republicans) to stay on the wrong side of Hispanic voters.

It is interesting that reporters like to accuse politicians of being political. Of course, even politicians accuse each other of being political. Isn’t this a little like accusing educators of trying to teach? Don’t we want politicians to be political? Isn’t an unpolitical politician pretty much an incompetent politician?

Saying that a politician is being political doesn’t make logical sense. It does make sense rhetorically. In terms of rhetoric, it is an example of what Kenneth Burke calls unmaking motivations. Almost all of Burke’s work deals with motivations, but for a fairly synoptic discussion, read the “Rhetorical Analysis of Bentham” section of A Rhetoric of Motives (first published in 1950). In short, Burke believes that we always have more than one motive for any action. A speaker (Obama, in this case) “may represent the lot by selecting one motive as significant and neglecting the others.” The opponent, conversely, tries to “select the least favorite to name the essence of an enemy’s motive.”

This kind of rhetorical interplay of motives occurred during Obama’s press conference. While President Obama was still delivering his comments, Neil Munro (a reporter for the conservative website The Daily Caller) interrupted with a question: “Mr. President, why do you favor foreign workers over American?” (To be accurate, this is what Munro said he asked later. His exact words were hard to pick up from the newscast.) The president tried to tell Munro to wait until he finished his comments, but Munro persisted. Eventually, the president said that “this is the right thing to do for the American people.”

The president wanted his motives to be viewed as helping the American people, being fair to Hispanics who have contributed to this country, helping businesses with labor needs, etc. Munroe wanted the president’s motives to be viewed as favoring illegal immigrants over American citizens, trying to get re-elected, etc. This is a rhetorical war of motives. When the Times reporters wrote that the president was being political, they are also unmasking motives and becoming involved in election politics. They may even, to some degree, being undermining their prediction that Obama’s play holds “the potential for considerable payoff.”

While unmasking motives is certainly not a new rhetorical strategy (it is as old as western rhetoric, that is, it has been used for at least two and half millennia), the media climate in which it currently operates has dramatically changed (in just the last twenty years). Think back to when there were only three major television networks, and CBS news dominated this market. During a thirty-minute news show, Walter Cronkite reported on the news. For two or three minutes, Eric Sevareid would come in to deliver an opinion piece, which might unmask the motives of a politician, but would be clearly labeled as “opinion.” Now, we have 24/7 all-news channels with program after program, each of which is almost entirely what used to be labeled as editorial or opinion but is now presented as reporting. Whether we are watching Fox News or MSNBC, we watch a series of pieces that unmask the motives of politicians and analyze their political strategies.

One might argue that such “reporting,” if it can be called that, is good for democracy. If voters understand a politician’s motives and strategies, they will be less naïve. However, with so little time devoted to what used to be called “reporting,” one has to wonder.

I want to end with a question for which I do not have an answer (but I promise to search for one): How should (and can) politicians function in a media world where every strategy is analyzed and every motive (the good, bad, and ugly) is unmasked within minutes after a message is delivered, or, maybe even, as with Obama’s recent press conference, as the message is being delivered?


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