It has been a WEEK, friends. I think I have aged. I am tired and emotional and as of Saturday morning the election has been called for Joe Biden. We’re just waiting to get the final count of electoral votes, and we don’t know how long that will take.
Friday morning Biden pulled ahead in Georgia and my timelines completely went berserk. Then he pulled ahead in Pennsylvania and the world totally turned upside down. My phone blew up and my twitter feed went crazy and my Facebook timeline was just nuts. Some groups were ready to call the election. A lot of editorial desks wanted to put that off until things were more certain, but everybody was talking about how these changes, and the definitive trends, made it look like a Biden win was more and more inevitable.
For a lot of my friends this was really good, if not great news. It was fantastic, in that Trump was losing. The last four years had been some of the worst of modern America’s history, and seeing those come to an end was such a relief that we were ready to cry. But at the same time, we didn’t see Biden as a great move forward. Biden is certainly a great move away from Trump, but for people who believe in progressive ideas, he is just kind of a nudge in the kind of right direction, as opposed to the big steps we need to take to make real progress in this country. Biden is, according to many on the left, wrong on health care, education, and any number of other issues because he is just too conservative. So while Biden is certainly better than the alternative, he wasn’t the choice of many people who I know and respect.
So while I was thinking about what to say about all of this, I had a number of ideas, and to be honest, each seemed more cynical than the next.
First, I thought I might talk about Trumpism in general, and how Trump may be leaving us, but it doesn’t seem that Trumpism is going anywhere. The Republican party seems to have remade itself in the image of Trump – and it doesn’t seem anxious to undo that.
This is in many ways a grassroots movement. The leadership was resistant to Trump in the beginning, but they followed the radical section of the base that lead the party to this new identity. Lindsay Graham is the prime example of this – during the 2016 primary he was one of Trump’s harshest critics. In the last few years he has become one of Trump’s staunches supporters. QAnon has become a part of standard discourse. People who espouse QAnon and conspiracy theories are institutionally supported, and as of this week, elected candidates. Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia publicly spouts off QAnon conspiracy theories and is headed to Congress.
Trump has stoked racism, sexism, homophobia, and led the party down an authoritarian path that the party has embraced. The issue is that American politics swings back and forth like a pendulum. We will have a Democratic leader for one, maybe two terms and then it will swing back to a Republican leader because Americans are fickle. And the question is, will Republicans cultivate that identity that long? Will that be the identity that we swing back to in 4-8 years? Will this base foment until it burgeons into something that can come back and win an election after just a few years? Or is this the end of the GOP and it will split into a Trumpian party and a moderate party? People have been speculating for a while that the party would split into a radically conservative party and something more moderate for a while, but the next few years will throw that sharply into focus. It will either split or morph into something wholly Trumpian.
Secondly, I thought about doing an entire episode on something even more dystopian – the fate of the republic itself. Many of my friends have been riddled with anxiety in the weeks leading up to the election. And by that, I mean, they have been debilitated. Just unable to function. Work has been hard, they couldn’t sleep – everything was hard.
I was talking to somebody and was explaining that I had anxiety, but it wasn’t overwhelming the way it was for some of my friends. I wasn’t at peace about the election, but it wasn’t crushing me, either. And I realized that the reason I wasn’t stressing about the election was because I had just accepted that this election was simply a part of the decline of the republic – it wasn’t as special as people had made it out to be. The republic has been in a downward spiral for quite some time and this was just the manifestation of that. The election wouldn’t change that. And we talked for a while and how long this had been going on. I said at least since the Reagan years. He said probably since before that. I said, yeah, probably fair – I could probably trace it back to at least the Nixon years, to be honest. And we agreed that the noticeable decline of the republic went back to the years before I was born. This had been going on well before my time. So it didn’t help to be overly anxious. That didn’t stop me from feeling it about two days before the election. I started getting nervous and excited just a day or two before Tuesday. But for a while I was okay because this just seemed the natural conclusion (or at least the next part in the chain of events) in a long decline.
But ultimately, I decided not to talk about any of these things. In contrast to my usual nature, I decided to focus on something a bit more positive. Because there are positive things to talk about. And it’s not just the fact that Trump is on his way out, though I think that’s a really big deal.
But something happened Friday morning that made me cry, in a good way, and that’s what I want to talk about.
I was waiting to start a Zoom meeting when Carl, our tech guy (and my partner) came into the room and told me that Pennsylvania had pulled ahead, and some editorial desks were calling the election for Biden. He said most major news stations weren’t calling it, but it was basically inevitable at that point. And I started to cry. I wiped the tears away from my face not because I was so happy Biden had won or because Trump had lost, but because there was a woman in the Executive Branch.
Kamala Harris is the first black, first Asian-American, and first woman to be Vice-President. She is the first Black person to be nominated from one of the two major parties for Vice President. She is the first Asian-American to be nominated for any office in the Executive Branch. She is the third woman to be nominated for Vice President by the two major parties. She is the first to win the office.
The list of people who have come before her is short and, honestly, not that well-known by many people. In terms of women who have been nominated for the Executive Branch there is Shirley Chisholm who was a nominee for president in 1972. In 1984 Geraldine Ferraro was chosen as Walter Mondale’s running mate. In 2008 John McCain chose Sarah Palin to be his running mate against Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
I point this out for a few reasons, some obvious and some a bit more rhetorical and maybe more specific to my interests.
One, the historical nature of this cannot be overlooked.
She is THE FIRST. And she is the first in 2020.
The first nominee was in 1984, which was a long time ago. It took until 2020 before a woman was successful in this arena. And only one other was given the opportunity between those two. Women have been kept out of the Executive Office, and Harris is the first to break into it. This is monumental, and women deserve some time to celebrate it. Women deserve the opportunity to say, “Yes. We are here. We made it.”
This is an exceptional week for women.
Rhetorically, this is notable, because she really has no tradition to draw on, and this is really important. Harris is about to be the first to speak this speech.
Geraldine Ferraro was very confined in her speech. She never spoke as a Vice President, only as a nominee. And as a nominee she did not have very much flexibility. She was a woman in 1984. Think about how feminism was viewed in 1984? Hell, think how feminism is viewed now. You can only imagine it was worse 36 years ago. Ferraro was a woman who was striking a blow for woman’s rights. That is unquestionable. But she had to appeal broadly to people from all walks of life. So she couldn’t be seen as a strident feminist even though she was making huge moves for women’s rights. So Ferraro was in a really constricted position. She was a major figure for the women’s movement but couldn’t speak too loudly for the women’s movement for fear of turning off voters. That is not to say that Ferraro didn’t stand up for women. She totally did. She ABSOLUTELY did. But she knew she had to appeal to the nation at large.
So take a look at her nomination speech. It is about how America is the place where all dreams come true. It is about how “The promise of our country is that the rules are fair. If you work hard and play by the rules, you can earn your share of America’s blessings. “She says later, “Americans want to live by the same set of rules. But under this administration, the rules are rigged against too many of our people. It isn’t right that every year, the share of taxes paid by individual citizens is going up, while the share paid by large corporations is getting smaller and smaller. The rules say: Everyone in our society should contribute their fair share. It isn’t right that this year Ronald Reagan will hand the American people a bill for interest on the national debt larger than the entire cost of the federal government under John F. Kennedy. Our parents left us a growing economy. The rules say: We must not leave our kids a mountain of debt. “
It is very much about American mythos – if you work hard and play by the rules you will be successful. It is the exact opposite of any kind of radical or oppositional speech. It is completely institutional. She says, “When I first ran for Congress, all the political experts said a Democrat could not win in my home district of Queens. But I put my faith in the people and the values that we shared. And together, we proved the political experts wrong. In this campaign, Fritz Mondale and I have put our faith in the people. And we are going to prove the experts wrong again.” This is about putting her faith in the American people.
Then she digs into America’s love of small cities BUT she puts that in conjunction with her own big city life. She talks about how big cities and small towns are not incompatible. “Last week, I visited Elmore, Minn., the small town where Fritz Mondale was raised. And soon Fritz and Joan will visit our family in Queens. Nine hundred people live in Elmore. In Queens, there are 2,000 people on one block. You would think we would be different, but we’re not. Children walk to school in Elmore past grain elevators; in Queens, they pass by subway stops. But no matter where they live, their future depends on education – and their parents are willing to do their part to make those schools as good as they can be.”
She continues talking about how change is coming and there are challenges ahead, but Americans can face them. She admits that there are gross injustices that America needs to address, with a brief focus on women’s issues, but focuses on America’s ability to overcome those injustices because America is ultimately a just and good nation.
But ultimately, the truth is, Ferraro lost. Mondale and Ferraro’s message of America overcoming injustice lost to Reagan’s message of a city on a hill and small government. So while Harris has Ferraro’s campaign speeches to draw on, Harris doesn’t have a tradition of VP speeches to draw on. There is no tradition of women’s VP speeches for Harris to look to as guidance for how a woman is supposed to speak in these circumstances and on important issues. Harris is the first. She is going to create the genre.
The other woman Harris has to look to for guidance is a very different speaker and a very different example for how to speak and how to approach public discourse – Sarah Palin.
Sarah Palin was not particularly interested in being a leader of the women’s movement, though she sought to be a leader for women. Palin specifically cultivated an image of herself as someone who did not speak in a traditional or institutional way.
Rhetoricians would not have called her a “good” speaker. She appealed to people in a very low-style, or what some would call “folksy” fashion, eschewing any kind of intellectualism or traditionalism. She embraced a particular kind of femininity, a kind of “mama bear” or “hockey mom” persona, portraying herself as a sharp, sassy, protective, “common sense” woman who had no need of elitist “expertise.”
Sarah Palin’s acceptance speech begins with a slight to “experts.” Palin reminds her audience that she, and therefor they, do not trust those who claim to be experts, and therefor elites.
Then she praises the man she will be running with and reminds us that she is a mother of a soldier, and so appreciates that the man she is running with is a soldier and a hero.
The next section of Palin’s speech is all about her family. It is a reminder to her audience that she is a mother and has a large family. Where Ferraro focused on the rules in America and American mythos, Palin begins her speech with an embrace of womanhood. When Ferraro talks about herself it was about how she when to law school at night and succeeded despite the odds. When Palin talks about herself it is as a mother and nurturer of a family. These are very different pictures of womanhood.
Palin also talks about her husband. She emphasizes he masculinity and his blue-collar credibility. She tells the crowd they were high school sweethearts, appealing to a very traditional American romance story.
Unlike Ferraro, Palin praises small-town America, appealing to the rural mythology embraced by the GOP. “ Long ago, a young farmer and a habber-dasher from Missouri, he followed an unlikely path — he followed an unlikely path to the vice presidency. And a writer observed: “We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, and sincerity, and dignity.” And I know just the kind of people that writer had in mind when he praised Harry Truman. I grew up with those people. They’re the ones who do some of the hardest work in America, who grow our food, and run our factories, and fight our wars. They love their country, in good times and bad, and they’re always proud of America. I had the privilege of living most of my life in a small town. I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA. I love those hockey moms. You know they say the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull: lipstick. So, I signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids’ public education even better. And when I ran for city council, I didn’t need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters, and I knew their families, too.”
She then goes on to praise her small-town experience and use it to shame Obama’s experience in Chicago. She says, “Before I became governor of the great state of Alaska, I was mayor of my hometown. And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess — I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a “community organizer,” except that you have actual responsibilities. I might add — I might add that in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they’re listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening. No, we tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco. As for my running mate, you can be certain that wherever he goes, and whoever is listening, John McCain is the same man.”
She plays up her accomplishments as governor of Alaska. She says, “Our state budget is under control. We have a surplus. And I have protected the taxpayers by vetoing wasteful spending: nearly half a billion dollars in vetoes. We suspended the state fuel tax, and championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. I told the Congress “thanks, but no thanks,” on that Bridge to Nowhere. If our state wanted to build a bridge, we were going to build it ourselves. When oil and gas prices went up dramatically, and filled up the state treasury, I sent a large share of that revenue back where it belonged — directly to the people of Alaska. And despite fierce opposition from oil company lobbyists, who kinda liked things the way that they were, we broke their monopoly on power and resources. As governor, I insisted on competition and basic fairness to end their control of our state and return it to the people. I fought to bring about the largest private-sector infrastructure project in North American history. And when that deal was struck, we began a nearly forty-billion-dollar natural gas pipeline to help lead America to energy independence. That pipeline, when the last section is laid and its valves are opened, will lead America one step farther away from dependence on dangerous foreign powers that do not have our interests at heart.”
And in contrast to her opposition she says the GOP will drill more and lay more pipeline. She lays out a plan in direct contrast to environmentalists on the left. This is directly in line with her “anti-expert, anti-elite” rhetoric. It is part of the GOP’s consistent anti-science positions.
Then she turns her attention to Obama. She says he cannot even say the word “victory” in relation to Iraq. She says government is too big and he only wants to grow it. Congress spends too much, and he wants to give them more. Taxes are too high, and he wants to raise them.
She says there are politicians who say great things, and then there are politicians like John McCain who do great things. She reminds the crowd of his reputation as a maverick who will put them above party and politics and will fight for them. She ends with an emotional and elevated description of McCain as a hero the man for whom they should vote if they want someone who will share their values and fight for them.
It is a much longer speech than Ferraro’s, and lacks the finesse and professionalism, but it much more personal and speaks about the candidate personally. It is a VERY different speech.
This leads us to three very different points –
Contrast the content of the overall theme of Palin and Ferraro:
Ferraro’s whole message is that if you play by the rules and work hard you will be successful. But it’s really important to her to play by the rules and work within the system. Palin’s (and McCain’s) whole campaign was based on the fact that they were Mavericks. Palin was proud of the fact that she would go rogue at any given moment and couldn’t be controlled. They didn’t follow the usual rules of politics and were not constrained by regular institutions. Granted, the two candidates were talking about different sets of rules, but it speaks to the wildly different approaches to their campaigns – one’s was about being well-behaved and predictable, and one was about being uncontrolled and unpredictable.
Secondly, we can’t ignore the intersectional nature of Harris’s situation. Harris isn’t just the first woman to be VP, she is the first Black and Asian American woman to be VP. So the rhetorical tradition, such as it is, that she has to call on, doesn’t speak to her identity in a number of ways. There have only been two women who were nominated as VP before her, and they cannot speak to her experience as a candidate, a politician, or a woman in a variety of ways, and therefore their rhetoric is only helpful up to a point. Harris is, in many ways, the epitome of what the third (and fourth wave) talk about when they talk about intersectionality.
She represents a nexus of identities that effect how she sees and responds to the world and what it means to be a woman, a feminist, and for our purposes, a rhetor.
Thirdly – Ferraro and Palin were just nominees. Neither won. There has yet to be a woman VP. Harris will be the first to speak as a woman in the office of the Vice President. Many people would argue it shouldn’t make a difference – a Vice Presidential speech should be just a basic Vice-Presidential speech in general. The genre should be the same given the exigence. But we would be foolish to think that Harris’s gender and race is not a constraint in this situation – because as we have noted she is THE FIRST.
So what is Harris going to say? How is she going to say it? Whatever the answer is to these questions, she will be the first. It will be genre establishing.
Karlyn Kohrs Campbell wrote about the rhetoric of women’s liberation as a genre in and of itself. It’s a complicated idea, but it was foundational to genre studies. It established that genre is not just a matter of the situation of the speech, but that women’s liberation speech had its own style and substance. In some ways, who spoke mattered.
Let’s think about a lot of things in conjunction here:
Part of thinking about what makes a genre is the stylistic characteristics of the piece, the organization, and the situation. Part of the situation is the Harris is the first woman to be Vice President. That changes the situation. She is not just speaking as Vice President when the election has been clinched or Vice President on inauguration day (or whenever she may speak), but she is speaking as the first woman in the Executive Branch. People will pay attention to what she says. People will pay attention to how she says it. People will pay attention to who she is. She is going to set the bar for those to come behind her. The fact that she has no tradition to draw on is significant.
But what is more significant, and what brought me to tears on Friday morning, is that there is a woman in the Executive Branch. The world is changing before our eyes.
Since we’re releasing this special election episode this today there won’t be a regular Wednesday episode this week, but we’ll be back to our regular schedule next week. Maybe things will be back to normal then? Or maybe we’ll just have a lot of litigation to work through. I don’t know! It could be fun!
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.