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Mitch McConnell Likes Putting Agency in Compromising Positions

November 10, 2010

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has been eagerly making the rounds since last week’s midterm elections. How else is he to vicariously taste the victory of the House’s new ruling party? McConnell appeared on Sunday on Face the Nation and spoke last Thursday to The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. The audiences weren’t quite the same—CBS viewers and conservative think tank staff—but McConnell’s message is. And McConnell doesn’t discriminate in putting Democrats and Republicans alike in very, very compromising positions for (spoiler alert!) the benefit of Republicans, especially himself.

Agency in its everyday sense is the capacity to act—to make something happen. So rhetorical agency is the capacity to make something happen (or not happen, if you prefer the status quo) through the persuasive use of words. (Ever wonder how “political rhetoric” got a bad rap?) (That’s a rhetorical question.) McConnell surrenders the rhetorical agency of Republicans and Democrats in order to convince the American people that they’re the ones in charge and to reap himself the benefits of pushing bipartisan compromise.

To show that the American people—including those everyday people Doug wrote about a couple days ago—are in charge, McConnell tells The Heritage Foundation’s staff:

This isn’t a reason for Republicans to gloat; rather, it’s a time for both parties to realize who’s really in charge—the people—and to be grateful for the opportunity we now have to begin to turn this ship around. Tuesday was a referendum, not a choice. It was a report card on the administration and anyone who supported its agenda, plain and simple.

And later:

The formula is simple, really: when the administration agrees with the American people, we will agree with the administration. When it disagrees with the American people, we won’t.

This move echoes the “I’m new to Washington and here to represent the people!” vibe running through the Republicans newly elected to the House, and McConnell is trying to join in on the reindeer games. But this is also an enormous compromise for the current Minority Leader of the Senate, former Majority Whip, and twice former Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. It’s not about Democrats. It’s not even about Republicans. But it is (cue the patriotic music and pass out the flag pins) about the people! His agency, both political and rhetorical, isn’t his—it’s the people’s! To be so humble before the people he serves is—oh, right, it’s a common political move.

But McConnell follows this up with an even greater compromise. He claims that the Democrats have been riding their Congressional majority horse too hard and aren’t sure what to do now that they’re in a bipartisan yoke. And McConnell can’t possibly be the bad guy in surrendering the Democrats’ selfish rhetorical agency to the American people if the Democrats are the ones who lost the House anyway.

So when Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation asked for McConnell’s prediction of a partisan or bipartisan atmosphere in the next session of Congress, McConnell didn’t bother with the Democratic party. Instead, he talked up his (and his “royal we” Republicans’) own common ground with President Obama:

Look, you know, there are things we can do together. The president said he’s in favor of nuclear power. We’re in favor of nuclear power. He said he’s in favor of electric cars. We’re in favor of electric cars. He said he’s in favor of clean coal technology…

There are things we’re going to be able to do. The notion that we’re at each other’s throats all the time is simply not correct. I’ve had two conversations with him this week about the way forward. We anticipate being able to do the people’s business in those areas where we agree.

Who said there aren’t any winners in compromises? They haven’t been listening to Mitch McConnell, who is all too happy to be the poster child for Republicans in Congress.

If you want to know more:

  • Amanda Young’s “Disciplinary Rhetorics, Rhetorical Agency, and the Construction of Voice,” in editors Barbara Johnstone and Chris Eisenhart’s Rhetoric in Detail: Discourse Analyses of Talk and Text, provides an excellent overview and exploration of the problems and application of rhetorical agency.
  • A shout-out to the late Michael Leff’s 2003 article “Tradition and Agency in Humanistic Rhetoric” in the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric (36.2: 135-147). Leff placed the rhetorical agent in a mutually influential relationship with his audience—in other words, no one-way brainwashing.
  • You can read the transcript of McConnell’s remarks to The Heritage Foundation here.
  • You can read the transcript of McConnell’s responses on Face the Nation here.

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