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Nazi Witches Need Your Vote! Denial and the 2010 Midterm Elections

October 26, 2010

Image by Kate Holterhoff

Remember when Nixon said, “I am not a crook” and no one believed him? Nixon’s folly may hold an important lesson for 2010 candidates like Christine O’Donnell, Rich Iott and Chris Coons, who have had to deny being a witch, a Nazi, and “bearded Marxist” respectively.

What these politicians can learn, according to linguist George Lakoff, is that when you deny something, you should not use the language or “frame” of your opponents. Recalling Nixon’s famous denial, Lakoff writes:

Richard Nixon found out the hard way.  While under pressure to resign during the Watergate scandal, Nixon addressed the nation on TV.  He stood before the nation and said, “I am not a crook.” And everybody thought about him as a crook.

When you state a negative (e.g. “I am not X”) people often forget the “not” part and continue believing that you’re an X or that it’s at least plausible that you might be an X.  (Perhaps Nixon should have said, “I’m an honest man” instead.)  Some politicians seem to be catching on. You might have noticed, for example, that Obama tends to argue that he is a Christian rather than deny that he is a Muslim (although being a Muslim is hardly the same as being a crook).

Back to our 2010 politicians. Let’s start with the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate from Delaware, Christine O’Donnell. She released an ad telling Delawareans that she is “you,” but “not a witch.”  The ad has been praised by Roy Peter Clark on CNN and, strangely, Roger Ebert via Twitter.  O’Donnell’s ad both does and does not reflect Lakoff’s ideas about denial.  She adopts the frame and wording of critics when she says that she’s “not a witch” and “nothing you’ve heard” and in doing so risks indirectly convincing people that she might be a witch.  But, she also provides an alternative frame, claiming that she is “you” (presuming, of course, that you’re not an actual witch who happens to live in Delaware).

You may or may not have heard of Rich Iott, the Republican, Tea-Party-supported nominee for U.S. Representative from Ohio’s 9th District.  Although there are few universal rules in contemporary politics, avoiding being photographed dressed as a Nazi soldier is probably among them.  Iott had already broken this rule when he became a candidate and has had to defend his participation in war reenactments as a member of the 5th SS Panzerdivision.  According to CNN, his opponents have called him a “Nazi enthusiast.”   Iott’s denial is smart from a rhetorical point of view:

What happened in Germany during the second World War is absolutely one of the low points in human history. In fact … [the website] talks about what happened and that we don’t support that. We don’t support the political or the ideological motives of that time. We’re talking strictly about the history. It’s important for us to remember that history.

Notice that he avoids saying, “I am not a Nazi” or “I am not a Nazi enthusiast.”  Instead he adopts an educational frame, putting his activities in the context of remembering history.

The last denial is probably my favorite.  Chris Coons, Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate from Delaware (and O’Donnell’s opponent) has been called a “bearded Marxist” in reference to the humorous headline of a 25-year-old article Coons wrote for a college newspaper. He has brushed the charge aside several times, most spectacularly during his October 13th debate with Christine O’Donnell:

If you take five minutes and read the article, it’s clear on the face of it, it was a joke. Despite that, my opponent and lots of folks in the right wing media have endlessly spun this. I am not now, nor have I ever been, anything but a clean-shaven capitalist.

Coons does several smart things in this passage.  Instead of saying “I am not a Marxist,” he claims that he has never been anything other than “a clean shaven capitalist.”  His phrasing (“I am not now, nor have I ever been…”) echoes a phrase used in Congressional hearings during the McCarthy era, “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”  The reference is subtle, but it suggests a link between the accusations of Marxism and the overzealous, overblown accusations of communism that characterized the Second Red Scare.

The 2010 midterms have been rife with bizarre accusations and vigorous denials, and it’s hard to say what this means for American politics.  Are they getting wackier?  I have no idea.  It does seem like politicians are getting smarter about refuting the claims of their opponents.  This trend may reflect the growing influence of media professionals on candidates—it’s getting harder and harder to find instances of candidates having to respond to new accusations off the cuff.

If you want to know more:

  • “Framing” is used to refer to many different language-related phenomena.  In Lakoff’s case, framing manifests in word choice, particularly as it relates to different conceptual metaphors.  For more on his theories, see Metaphors We Live By, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think or Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, the book I excerpted in this entry.
  • If you haven’t seen it already, you need to watch SNL’s parody of O’Donnell’s ad.
  • For another recent reference to the McCarthy hearings, see this cartoon featuring Sonia Sotomayor.
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