Welcome to Wisconsin, Primary Exports: Cheese, Corn, and Zany Political Metaphors
Metaphors are a staple of public arguments, and with good reason. You can make an entire argument about something just by using a metaphor to describe it. Think of it this way: “welfare queen” says something quite different from “welfare recipient.”
In the ongoing controversy over the Wisconsin state budget and collective bargaining rights for public employees, both sides have used metaphors to make their case, some good, some a little bit nutty. Here are some of my favorites:
1. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is a Midwestern Mubarak.
Lots of people are making this comparison, including Tom Morello, guitarist from Rage Against the Machine. But when we consider Mubarak’s decades-long career, a career that was choc-a-block with corruption, it’s hard to see Walker, who just took office this year, as even a “mini-Mubarak.” Say what you will about Mubarak, the end of his presidency has at least afforded us a temporary break from Hitler comparisons. If Mubarak hadn’t been so unpopular, we would no doubt be hearing about Walker’s commitment to Nazi principles.
2. Wisconsin is ground zero for the union issue.
This gem comes courtesy of Tea Party activist Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. The quote comes in the middle of a CNN story. To be fair to Phillips, the quote is short, so it’s entirely possible that a reporter left out “But, you know, not that ground zero.” Phillips’ quote is a lesson in being media savvy: if you want to make the front page of CNN.com, go crazy or go home.
3. The Democratic state senators from Wisconsin are in hiding.
Walker used this one in an interview on ABC’s Good Morning America. He was also quoted saying something similar in an article on CNN.com. The idea of senators “in hiding” connects nicely with criminal imagery. The senators have indeed left Wisconsin and have been keeping their location a secret, revealing only that they are somewhere in Illinois. However, opponents of the Walker-backed budget bill might argue that the senators are “in exile,” giving their absence a much more noble, political character. Journalists, meanwhile, have settled on words like “walkout” and “boycott” to describe the state senators’ quorum-blocking absence.
4. The Democratic state senators are holding people hostage.
This one is also taken from Walker’s interview on ABC. Walker uses “hostage-taking” as a metaphor for procedural obstruction of legislation (e.g., filibusters). This usage is similar to Obama’s claim about Republicans “holding hostage” middle-class tax cuts last year. But hostage-taking requires hostages, which are usually people, not things. And when hostage-takers return hostages (as is the best-case scenario in a hostage situation), don’t headshots or, at the very least, arrests usually follow?
On the use of metaphor in argument, Aristotle tells us that:
…if you wish to adorn, borrow the metaphor from something better in the same genus, if to denigrate, from worse things.
In other words, choose your metaphor based on your rhetorical purpose. Most people know how to do this by instinct. They choose negative imagery to describe things they oppose, and vice versa. It’s the second part of Aristotle’s advice that we would do well to heed: choose something from the same genus. Choose a metaphor whose referent is at least similar to what you are trying to describe. Is Walker being stubborn? Maybe. Mubarakesque? Not really.
If you want to know more:
- Some quick background on the situation in Wisconsin: As of this writing, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has again rejected the possibility of compromising with Democrats over a controversial “union busting” measure that is part of a larger state budget bill aimed at eliminating a budget shortfall. The measure in question restricts the ability of public employees to bargain collectively, allowing public sector unions to negotiate only on matters of compensation, not benefits or working conditions.
- My Aristotle quote is taken from the 2007 Kennedy translation of On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. The quote can be found on page 200, Bekker number 1405a.