You may have heard in the news recently about Mitch McConnell’s unfortunate gaffe about voting rates. In case you missed it, Bruce Schreiner writes,
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is drawing criticism for comments he made shortly before the GOP blocked a federal elections bill, when he said that “African American” voters cast ballots at similar rates to “Americans.”
The minority leader made the remark at a news conference in Washington on Wednesday, when he was asked about concerns that people of color have about voting rights.
“The concern is misplaced because if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans,” McConnell said.
The comment implied that Black voters are somehow not American and underscored the concerns of voting rights advocates that Republicans in state legislatures across the country are explicitly seeking to disenfranchise Black voters. The timing was also notable, coming the same day that McConnell engineered a filibuster to block voting legislation that Democrats and civil rights leaders say is vital to protecting democracy.
Schreiner also writes,
McConnell’s supporters called it an unfair attack, saying he simply left out a word and meant to say that Black people vote at similar rates to “all” Americans. Black voters do cast ballots at about the same rate as all voters, falling in between Latinos, who are less likely to go to the polls than African Americans, and whites, who are more likely to go to the polls.
In 2016 and 2020, white voters turned out at higher rates than Black voters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The census shows that 71% of eligible white voters cast a ballot in 2020, compared with 63% of eligible African Americans. In 2016, 65% of white voters cast a ballot, versus 60% of Black voters.
Scott Jennings, a former adviser to President George W. Bush who has close ties to McConnell, said attacks on the senator’s remarks were “ridiculous.”
“McConnell was clearly stating that African American voting rates are similar to the entire electorate as a whole, to point out how easy and fair our system of voting is for everyone,” he said.
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, who is Black, also came to the senator’s defense, saying the “faux outrage” over McConnell’s remarks was “absurd.” Cameron, a Republican, is McConnell’s former legal counsel. Cameron also said that McConnell was “making a point that Black voting rates are similar to the entire electorate as a whole.”
But the response from Black Americans on social media was swift and terse.
Mariana Alfaro writes,
the anger among Black Americans was evident in social media posts.
“Being Black doesn’t make you less of an American, no matter what this craven man thinks,” Charles Booker, a Democrat running against Sen. Rand Paul (R) for Paul’s Kentucky seat, tweeted.
“Collin Powell was a real American,” tweeted an account named “Republicans against Trumpism,” attaching an image of the late general, who was Black. “[McConnell], apologize now!” the account demanded.
“Hey [McConnell], for your information, I’m also an American,” tweeted Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison, a Black man.
Soon, more Black Americans were tweeting pictures of themselves with the caption “I am American” and using the #MitchPlease hashtag.
It’s an interesting moment, even if it’s not a momentous one, because it poses a provocative question: do we take McConnell at his word? If we think he meant what he said, then that’s a pretty big statement on what he thinks of Black people in America. If we give him a more generous reading, that it was just a slip-up, then it’s just a comment on voting and doesn’t even merit our attention.
Now, it is certainly possible that it was just a slip of the tongue. People misspeak all the time, and it is just an innocent mistake. But if the field of communication teaches us anything, it is that we have to take people’s words seriously. Now, how do you know when to take somebody’s words seriously and when it is just an innocent mistake? That’s really hard, if not impossible to know. But there are clues. Consider the context in which these words were spoken. McConnell is part of a movement that has done everything it could to discredit Black Lives Matter. He is leading the charge to dismantle voting rights. His party makes every attempt to gerrymander to strip People of Color of their political power. Republicans haven’t just passively obstructed Black progress in America in recent years, they have been antagonistic to it. The party is trying to strip any mentions of Black history or racism out of education in some states and whitewash history and literature. They supported an unabashed white supremacist for four years, and seem to still be kowtowing to him even though he lost the election. So while we may want to give McConnell the benefit of the doubt, the context of this statement doesn’t look good. The words seem to fit the overall direction of the Republican party, and that makes it easy for people to critique the statement based on what he said, not what he says he meant.
So I want to consider the ideology behind this statement. And there are ways to get to ideology. Rhetorical theory provides us with a bevvy of tools to help us understand the implied ideology of a rhetor. Today, we’re going to be exploring the idea of personas.
When Edwin Black explained the second persona in 1970 he described a process by which a rhetor constituted the ideal audience. Black argued by focusing on the worldview written into the text a critic could learn something about what a rhetor hoped of her or his audience, and thereby could understand something of the rhetor.
“ We have learned to keep continuously before us the possibility, and in some cases the probability, that the author implied by the discourse is an artificial creation: a persona, but not necessarily a person.” He says,
“What equally well solicits our attention is that there is a second personaalso implied by a discourse, and that persona is its implied auditor. This notion is not a novel one, but its uses to criticism deserve more attention. In the classical theories of rhetoric the implied auditor—this second persona—is but cursorily treated. We are told that he is sometimes sitting in judgment of the past, sometimes of the present, and sometimes of the future, depending on whether the discourse is forensic, epideictic, or deliberative. We are informed too that a discourse may imply an elderly auditor or a youthful one. More recently we have learned that the second persona may be favorably or unfavorably disposed toward the thesis of the dis-course, or he may have a neutral attitude toward it.”
If the first persona is the “I” of a piece of rhetoric, the second persona is the “you” of a piece of rhetoric. It is the primary audience of a piece of rhetoric. And one way of discovering the ideological functions of rhetoric is to observe how a rhetor’s ideology influences how they reach out to their audience or who they imagine their audience to be. The second persona is this “implied auditor.” This has a direct connection to ideology.
“It is not age or temperament of even discrete attitude. It is ideology – ideology in the sense that Marx used the term: the network of interconnected convictions that functions in a man epistemically that shapes his identity by determining how he views the world.”
The audience the speaker imagines will be indicated in the speech, and that will give you insight into the speaker’s ideology.
Black argued that “certain features of a linguistic act entail certain characteristics of the language user”. This connection between the rhetorical choices and the rhetor indicates the ideological choices of the speaker. These ideological choices have implications not just for the speaker but for the audience.
A “critic can see in the auditor implied by a discourse a model of what the rhetor would have his real auditor become. What the critic can find projected by the discourse is the image of a man, and though that man may never din actual embodiment it is still a man that the image is of This condition makes moral judgment possible, and it is at this point in the process of criticism that it can illuminatingly be rendered. We know how to make appraisals of men. We know how to evaluate potentialities of character. We are compelled to do so for ourselves constantly. And this sort of judgment, when fully ramified, constitutes a definitive act of judicial criticism.”
In short, a rhetor projects an image of the perfected ideology for the audience to copy. And this allows us to make judgments.
But the theory of personas did not end with Black. People took up his mantle for years to come and further defined the idea of personas to help us understand how constructing audiences helps us understand ideology.
Perhaps most notably was Philip Wander, who articulated the notion of the third persona. While the second persona highlight the ideal audience of the rhetor, the third persona are those who do not belong in the worldview of the rhetor.
But, just as the discourse may be understood to affirm certain characteristics, it may also be understood to imply other characteristics, roles, actions, or ways of seeing things to be avoided…the “it” that is not present, that is objectified in a way that “you” and “I” are not. This being not present, may, depending on how it is fashioned, become quite alien, a being equated with disease, a “cancer” called upon to disfigure an individual or a group; or an animal subordinated through furtive glance or beady eye; or an organism, as a people might be transformed, through a biological metaphor, into “parasites.” The potentiality of language to commend being carries with it the potential to spell out being unacceptable, undesirable, insignificant.”
Wander’s Third Persona builds on Edwin Black’s Second Persona by identifying another particular audience. There is, firstly, the audience that is the aim of a speech, or the primary audience, and of course those who are reached inadvertently by said speech. However, “the actual audience” does not “reveal the audience or persona commended through the speech.” The speaker may reach the audience, but may want the audience to become something else entirely.
This audience creation is a matter of language choices. The Second Persona is “meaningful in a society made up of competing groups and rival ideologies.” It allows a critic to look at the ideology it recommends. That is, it is an invitation to a particular community from the rhetor. It affirms certain characteristics, ideas, and values of the ideal audience member. But, Wander posits, in the process, there is an action of negation. By affirming what “you” are there is an affirmation of what “you” are not. Wander notes that “the potentiality of language to commend being carries with it the potential to spell out being unacceptable.” The Third Persona is an audience that is negated through language. In becoming negated, this audience may be perceived as “alien” or “diseased.” It is in some way aberrant. The Third Persona means being negated in language and being negated in history. It is what we are “told” to avoid becoming. The implication in that, of course, is that there is a “we.” This ideological position illustrates the multi-faceted nature of identity. It can be crafted and managed from multiple angles and positions. Rhetors from a number of ideological positions can imply an identity or that there are certain audiences that are unacceptable.
In other words, the third persona is the group that does not belong. This message is not for them. They are the “them” of the speech. The outsiders. The ones that should be left out, if not pushed out of the crowd. The third persona is the audience that should be silenced.
According to Wander,
“The Third Persona, therefore, refers to being negated. But “being negated” not only includes being alienated through language – the “it” that is the summation of all that you and I are told to avoid becoming, but also being negated in history, a being whose presence, though relevant to what is said, is negated through silence. The moral significance of being negated through what is said and not said reveals itself in all its anguish and confusion in context, in the world of affairs wherein certain individuals and groups are, through law, tradition, or prejudice, denied rights according to being commended or, measured against an ideal, to human beings. The objectification of certain individuals and groups discloses itself through what is and is not said about them and through actual conditions affecting their ability to speak for themselves. Operating through existing social, political, and economic arrangements, negations extends beyond the “text” to include the ability to produce texts, to engage in discourse, to be heard in the public space.”
When McConnell made this gaffe he did some interesting rhetorical audience creation. Specifically, he told us who his audience is NOT. He told us who is being left out of the ideal audience. If who he is talking to is America, then African-Americans are somehow a different group. They are a separate audience. And, as Wander notes is the case with the third persona, they are a historically negated audience. Black Americans are a historically maligned audience in general, and the context of the speech in question is that the speaker is part of a group that has a tendency to negate or malign that audience specifically. So when the speaker verbally creates a “them,” it is not hard to see how people take offense. McConnell didn’t create a negated audience from nothing, he just indicated which audience was already silenced and negated by a history of American and conservative rhetoric. He was simply indicating the already constructed third persona.
Now – here I must make a little detour from this bit of rhetorical analysis. I spent a number of hours, stretched across a number of days researching and writing this episode. Honestly, that’s not uncommon. And I had just about finished it up. I had just the last bit of analysis left to go and a conclusion left to write when something happened that threw me for a loop.
I heard the news that Stephen Breyer is stepping down.
And I thought, Oh, crap! Do I need to re-write my podcast? Do I need to make the whole episode about this? Do I have time to get that all done?
And I just didn’t know if I had time to pull that off, but I couldn’t let it go by without addressing it.
Breyer, who is 83, is stepping down after almost three decades on the Supreme Court. He is one of three liberal justices left. This will open up an opportunity for Biden to replace him with a younger, progressive justice. IF Republicans will let a nominee through. It’s hard to imagine they’d hold somebody up for two years, but I wouldn’t put anything past them.
This won’t change the composition of the Court, but it gives Biden a chance to put forth a successor while Dems hold both the White House and the Senate, which could easily change after mid-term elections. Making this a very important bit of timing.
A lot of people criticized RBG for hanging around too long so that when she died it was Trump who got to replace her instead of Obama doing so had she retired when he was in office. The SCOTUS isn’t supposed to be political, but we all know it’s a big game of chess like that.
Biden has said he will appoint a Black woman if he gets the chance, which will be both historic, and a big middle-finger to the GOP who has been fighting against voting rights, trying to discredit BLM, and has supported an unabashed white supremacist since 2016. So McConnell’s gaffe suddenly takes on a bit more edge. If the GOP does not see Black people as Americans, and Biden vows to put a Black woman on the Supreme Court, we can see how this is directly antagonistic.
In some ways, it won’t make that much difference because the make-up of the Court won’t change. But in another way it makes a HUGE difference because it could keep the make-up of the Court from shifting even further to the right. And that matters because Roberts has shown himself to be a rare swing vote, and even Gorsuch, as weird as it is to say, is willing to occasionally put the law above politics, as we saw in his Bostock opinion.
I’m sure we’ll re-visit this in the future as this drama plays out. But for now keep an eye on the situation. It’s bound to be entertaining.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.