As I recently posted, I am going to begin a daily interrogation of Wall Street Journal editorials, a practice I started long ago. This example illustrates some of the tools of rhetorical analysis that I’ll be employing.
WALL STREET JOURNAL EDITORIAL 7-14-86: “Reagan’s Year”
“Myth on the right is well-fed, sleek, expansive, garrulous. It invents itself ceaselessly. It takes hold of everything.” (Roland Barthes, Mythologies, 148-49)
Not since the days of Teddy Roosevelt and William Randolph Hearst has such a close alliance existed between a newspaper and a president as that between the Wall Street Journal and Ronald Reagan. In the heady days of RR’s rise to power, the Journal’s editorial page was a virtual blueprint of administration policy and an early-warning system for presidential rhetoric. Since the departure of Craig Paul Roberts and Jude Wanninski from the Journal’s edit pages, and the gradual fading of the supply-side controversy from headlines, the Journal is less in the political spotlight. Yet editorial page editor Robert Bartley and his staff have perfected the outrageous ideological editorial form over the past six years. Their invectives have been described aptly by Bob Kuttner as “scornful, sneering, and Manichean.” Manichean is the key: they see themselves speaking for god-like principles struggling to control the universe. This holy war attitude gives them fire, and makes for rhetoric-with-a-vengeance, language with blood on its mind. If rhetoric may be called the art of swaying and holding an audience–identification and hypnosis–then its principle task, as French writer Roland Barthes put it in his classic Mythologies, is to create a myth by making it seem natural, a given, a “structure of reality,” as French rhetorician Chaim Perelman calls it. Since the Journal is still the creator of the reality principle for the Reagan administration, it seems useful to annotate a mid-term, mid-1986 seminal Journal editorial, using some ideas of Barthes and Perelman to illustrate how the rhetoric of the Reagan administration is created and creative.
1-Quantity masquearding as quality. Poll ratings, net worth, GNP, and corporate earnings have become fully ensconced as the bellweathers of success in Reagan’s America.Quality has been reduced to a co-efficient of power. The ’70’s emphasis on “quality of life” seems naive and innocent: not real. Numbers are no longer contextualized or seen as arguments, but are treated as somehow natural, the way things are. Even arguments are not presented as such, or even as explanations, but as statements of fact, as things that mean something all by themselves.
2- Theses built on adherence to premises: getting the audience to buy into your assumptions. The thesis of the editorial, that RR’s revolution is as permanent and far-reaching as FDR’s, depends on two main premises: that America was “in decline” under Jimmy
Carter, and, correlatively, that America has been rescued after being held hostage by the Democrats, who, like the Iranians and Soviets, affront the real America. The myth-making starts here, using paired either/orisms to create the dichotomy defective Others (Democrats, Iranians, etc)/born American. The pejoratives “whims of Congress” and “redistributing income,” are shorthand for anything that stands in the way of Reaganomics; the naturalized terms “economically favorable” and “most productive assets” establish the norm, which “laughs” at a whimsical and socialist Congress.
3. Using codewords to signify something beyond their literal meaning. These godwords are the essence of supply-side ideology, and always have an agenda: “incentives” are what the Democrats took away from Americans. Under Carter, it wasn’t worth it to be an American. The “margin” of incentive is what “Reagan” has restored: Americans can now put in that extra effort to earn the next dollar because incentive “is back”. Incentive lies at the margin–everything has its price and net worth. Everything is for sale, except for those whimsical few who don’t “work”. “Work” has replaced “whim” and “productivity” has replaced “redistribution”. The Democrats are not “productive assets”.
4.Establish a concrete entity as an eternal order whose essence you are in touch with. The electorate has been held hostage. A “political” judiciary nearly ran away with “the Constitution”. Thus a new myth is born: the new apolitical Reagan judiciary. How could judges ever have gotten “political” (tainted) when they could wrap themselves in the pure mantle of the “Constitution” (now made fixed and sure, like the sun). Reagan’s judges speak for the Constitution, automatically.
5.Simple cause and effect as the key to high melodrama. The effects: America’s decline and revival. The causes: the loss and recovery of will. Like Congress and the judiciary, the Soviets, Libyans and Sandinistas have been holding America hostage. The Other as clown, scandal or enemy. But now “punishment,” “unequivocal opposition” and high tech have put the blues (or, rather, the Reds) on the run, “off balance”. “High tech” and “punishment” are naturally preferable to whim and equivocation.
6. Prolepsis (the inoculation), or the art of presenting objections you are eager to respond to. The Journal excels at the sarcastic prolepsis, which belittles the case by overstating it. Here, for example, by listing so many possible explanations for “Ronald Reagan’s” success, they reduce them all absurdity, and strengthen their own case for RR as FDR.
7. Relying on the emotional associations of an analogy to cover over ways the analogy breaks down. The heart of the analogy: just as FDR didn’t compromise in the face of the Depression, a great crisis of American “decline,” neither will “Ronald Reagan” compromise with the contemporary threats to “America”: the “economic destructiveness of a steeply progressive tax system” or the “dangers of expanding federal programs”. Despite the obvious fact that the late ’70s shared little with the late ’20s and early ’30s, the inflated analogy bullies the reader into accepting the themes of decline and rebirth. At some point concrete realities, like taxation, become abstract principles, like “decline,” and are thus given a qualitatively different nature. In such a new universe, it becomes unnatural to even consider new federal programs or taxes. Such talk is “decline”.
8. Redefining key terms and appropriating them to your argument. The “Washington political establishment” astonishingly doesn’t seem to include the current administration, the Republican Senate or the new Reagan courts. Yet, somehow, these post-’79 elements have established a revolution in Washington. “Establishment” no longer means the ruling powers, but those elements opposed to RR. Journal editorialists excel at this art of turning words inside-out and repossessing (co-opting) them. Here, they have usurped the New Left’s use of “establishment” and thus mythologize themselves as Constitutional purists and outsiders, not connected with “Washington”. Thereupon, a major pitch for “Star Wars”, based on the assumption that anyone opposed to SDI is stuck in ’79, in Carteresque, unconstitutional, traitorous malaise.
9. Rationalize a wish-list by using verbs to establish values. The line-item veto (“the only solution to the budget problem”??) would “inject discipline” by cutting all domestic (read: nondefense) funding; the gold standard would, euphemistically, “stabilize the value of capital commitments,” and SDI would “defend our military assets” and, oh yes by the way, “ultimately our population”.
10. Arguing in a circle by assuming the very thing you need to prove. The myth delivered: America has been forever remolded. Why? Because: Because assets are stabilized, incentive is restored, and “domestic outlays” are now being handled “prudently” by leaders with “discipline”. Never mind that “assets” are being defined a certain way, or that “prudence” and “discipline” simply mean adhering to administration policies. Asserting causation doesn’t prove it, but challenging any of these “becauses” becomes treasonous. It’s a charmed circle, the winner’s circle, and anyone who doesn’t have the common sense of reality to know what prudence, discipline and stability mean, had better stop laughing. There’s been a revolution, and they’ve been left at the station. Now that’s invective.