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(Symbolic) Resistance is Futile…Or Is It?

January 10, 2011

While we at the Silver Tongue were off on our holiday break, the House Republican majority elected in November began their tenure. And they came in swinging, too, making the repeal of last year’s healthcare bill a priority. In a vote that they won by a pretty big majority that included a few Democrats, they’ve even already secured a place in the discussion next week for their not-melodramatically-named-at-all “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.”

New Speaker of the House John Boehner talked up their efforts to repeal the healthcare act during an interview on NBC Nightly News last week. He described the healthcare bill as “the biggest job killer that we have in America today,” a “weight over every employer we have,” and, as if that’s not enough, something that will “ruin the best healthcare system in the world” and “bankrupt our country.” All this just when we got to thinking all those awful town halls were behind us and “Obamacare” was pretty much a done deal.

But wait, is it? As MSNBC and the New York Times both note, even though it seems pretty plausible that the healthcare repeal will pass the House, Democrats still control the Senate and the White House. So we’re doomed and we’re pretty much stuck accepting the biggest job-killer in America? You’ll have to excuse me, as I’m wringing my hands too hard to keep typing. But what’s that you say? The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office doesn’t necessarily agree with the Republican’s proclamations? Well then, what’s with all this doom and gloom?

I’m glad you asked. It doesn’t take a PhD in Rhetoric to figure out that all the talk of job genocide is mostly symbolic (and you thought I was going to say “to stay jobless in this economy,” didn’t you? Rimshot, please! Tip your bartender, I’ll be here all week). But what might be less clear is the “why” behind all of this, beyond, of course, being able to tell P.O.ed conservative constituents “well, we tried” when the whole thing fizzles out.

Symbolic resistance like this can be rhetorically powerful in two ways. First off, it solidifies a sense of who the Republicans are and what they stand for, both for themselves and the rest of the nation. By bringing “Obamacare” back into the national discussion, they remind everyone of who conservatives in America are right now and what it is that they do (or at least what it is that they don’t like). It hits a nerve on an issue that Americans are still divided on, and it takes us back to the moment when President Obama’s popularity first started to wane.

Secondly, it’s a way of rhetorically flexing, of showing off your new political power, limited though it may be. You know how if you’re out in the wilderness and you’re confronted with a mountain lion you’re supposed to unzip your coat and hold it open to make yourself look as big as possible? This is the rhetorical equivalent of that. It reminds everyone just who’s in charge of the House of Representatives right now, and it also says “we won’t back down from our major positions, no matter what.”

So while the gesture is largely symbolic, it’s certainly not a futile one. By using all sorts of doom and gloom language about the healthcare bill, even though they can’t necessarily do anything about it, Republicans are both making themselves look powerful and making the Obama administration look bad. Far from an empty gesture, it’s a win-win situation for them.

If you want to know more:

  • My thoughts here once again draw on Erving Goffman’s “Forms of Talk” and “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.” Particularly, I had in mind Goffman’s ideas about how linguistic and verbal behaviors are often directly linked to how we want our audiences to perceive us.
  • All quotes from John Boehner are taken from the MSNBC article that I linked to above. You can watch the interview there too.
  • I wrote a similar analysis in this here web log of remarks that Obama made right after the election that basically took Republicans’ cooperation for granted. This is pretty much the same thing–in these cases, you see how Obama and now Boehner act more “in power” then they actually are.
  • Don’t take my word on the whole mountain lion thing. Mountain lions might not even be the right animal, and even if they are, the whole thing might just be a groundless folk belief. I wouldn’t know any better because I’m one of those people that believes that humankind invented things like buildings and cities to get away from things like mountain lions so I try to spend a lot of time in them.
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