Many of the left feel as though U.S. politics entered into a new realm of political discourse. We see opponents of President Trump claim that he is lowering the bar of what we have come to expect from our elected representatives as it relates to their behavior, ethics, and negotiating tactics. I would like to deconstruct his words and actions to see if this is true, or a result of public misconception. To preface any discussion on the topic of normative behavior I would like to point out that no one owns or has dominion over what makes an action or speech “ethical” or “virtuous”. Neither the left nor the right can stake a preeminent claim on what it means to moral. So, perhaps before we ask the question of “is President Trump lowering the bar of political discourse?”, we should first define what raises or lowers the bar, and probably also what the bar is.
When we think of what constitutes a bar, we often think of “height” being correlated to “superior” or having more quality. We should ask then, “superior to what?”. What is the purpose of elevating the way we talk to each other? Is it the pursuit of an ideal? It is a display of arrogance? An attempt to control the dialogue? It is and has been all of these depending on whose talking.
If the point of engaging with a counter-party is to influence them into thinking as you do, or to convince them that your policy is better, then the height of this bar should relate to efficacy. We know, however, that mudslinging and name calling can be effective in swaying people to your opinion, as in the case where Trump continued to call his opponent “low-energy Jeb”, a moniker that stuck with him throughout the campaign. We don’t know whether Jeb Bush would have made a superior president to Trump, but the name calling tactic proved successful in swaying opinion against Bush possibly at the expense of the American electorate. If the bar for politicians relates to the efficacy of their persuasiveness, then the bar for the American public should relate to how well our political discourse vets candidates and demonstrates their ability to perform the tasks of elected office.
So, to reiterate, the bar’s height relates to two things:
- How effective is the communication in persuading counter-parties to your way of thinking or policy solutions?
- How effective is the communication in illustrating your ability to complete the tasks you are assigned to?
A Limbo Contest?
It is untrue that Trump is the only one moving the bar up or down; it is a collaborative effort among all those who engage in public discourse. In talking with our neighbors, or constituents, there is a divide in normative thinking, or how we think politicians should speak. On the one hand, there are very polished ivy league politicians who speak in nuanced policy terms. On the other, we have politicians who speak plainly and cater their message to a wider audience. The recent election illustrated that there is a greater thirst for the latter, rather than the former in the sense that plain-speak resonated so resoundingly with many supporters. Some linguists have said that Trump speaks just below a sixth grade reading level . His opponents on the left, however, speak at an 8th-10th grade reading level. So, for opponents of Trump, complexity doesn’t necessarily equate to a higher bar even given Trump’s simplistic way of communicating.
What then do people mean when they say he is lowering the bar of political discourse? Well, if we use the two criteria above to evaluate his communications to the public, he fails on both accounts. His rhetoric does not prove effective in persuading counter-parties to his way of thinking and; He does not effectively illustrate his ability to complete tasks as the United States President. I can’t claim these two things to be facts-they are my opinion, but I’m basing that opinion on his declining approval ratings, reaching 50% within the first eight days as President.
Using Twitter to communicate with the public doesn’t provide any nuanced discussion of key policy issues that his constituents care about. He cannot effectively demonstrate through his favored medium that he is making sound decisions based on credible evidence. This will prove damaging to his own political capital as well as the public’s view of his legitimacy as president. If President Trump cannot adapt his communication to meet to some length both of the criteria which determines the length of the bar, he will face overwhelming resistance as his presidency continues.