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Welcome to Wisconsin, Primary Exports: Cheese, Corn, and Zany Political Metaphors

February 23, 2011

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.
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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 24, 2011 10:47 pm

    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.

    Regarding the comparisons of Scott Walker with Mubarak; You made a very good point about the Hitler comparisons. It was just a couple of weeks ago, before the Egypt protests, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) compared those opposed to health-care reform with Nazis. Whether you are for or against health-care reform, there is no room for comparisons to Nazis and hated foreign leaders. This type of political discourse hinders any type of progress and only worsens the hate between the right and the left.

  2. February 24, 2011 10:48 pm

    Regarding the comparisons of Scott Walker with Mubarak; You made a very good point about the Hitler comparisons. It was just a couple of weeks ago, before the Egypt protests, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) compared those opposed to health-care reform with Nazis. Whether you are for or against health-care reform, there is no room for comparisons to Nazis and hated foreign leaders. This type of political discourse hinders any type of progress and only worsens the hate between the right and the left.

  3. Daniel Dickson-LaPrade permalink
    February 25, 2011 10:57 am

    Lovely piece, Doug. Here was, for me, the most interesting bit: “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.”

    But the trick is, what do rhetors construe as being the same genus? For Aristotle, it was easy: he had a whole categorical system, from “Substance” all the way down to “my dog Fifi.” Today, there are competing category-systems form different political ideologies, different disciplines, different ethnic heritages, etc.

    It’s interesting to think about what it is that makes for acceptable, dodgy, or preposterous metaphors. Endoxa is obviously key–do “human” and “chimpanzee” belong to the same Aristotelian genus?–but so, too are the particular analogical connections deployed by the rhetor in using the metaphor/analogy. For example, insofar as Mubarak’s anti-democratic policies, Egyptian grievances about low wages, and the active role played by labor unions in the Cairo protests are being foregrounded, the Mubarak analogy is really not so far-fetched–for a rhetor and an audience whose endoxa favors union activity.

    It’s a bit like narrative in argument: you can argue that the tea party is exactly like every other radical conservative movement in history (with a few minor differences), or you can argue that the tea party is an utterly new moment in conservative politics (in spite of a few minor similarities). As with metaphors/analogies, what is foregrounded and backgrounded in a given utterance is at least as important as the narrative or metaphor itself.

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