‘Decline’ Creeps into Political Rhetoric

APTOPIX Obama State of Union

Last week, we were warned about "declinists" who somehow threaten California. This week, those declinists have reached Washington.

Who are these declinists? Well, they are very, very bad people --whoever they are -- who exist, at least as stock characters, in the speeches of leading Democrats, among them Gov. Jerry Brown and President Obama.

Brown's state of the state speech took a shot at California "declinists" who "sing of Texas" and "bemoan our woes," believing Brown's message was that the declinists, whoever they are, are wrong and that "California is on the mend" and that "we are coming back."

This terrible problem of unnamed declinists also has, tragically, reached Washington.

President Obama went after them in his State of the Union speech: "America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about."

What explains these similar rhetrocial blasts?

There are very few coincidences in American politics. And this similar rhetoric sticks out like a sore thumb, because they add nothing to the policy messages of the speech.

The similarities suggest that one or more political strategists, looking at focus groups and polls, has found that many voters respond well to this particular rhetoric.

This idea also may be coming from the academy; Robert Kagan, a well-known scholar with a column in the Washington Post, makes a persuasive argument against decline in the most recent issue of the New Republic magazine.

Anyway, it seems clear that writers and politicians have decided that the public doesn't want to hear talk about decline. They want uplift.

This argument is fine when Kagan makes it in a detailed way, but it can sound like demagoguery when politicians do it. 

Both Brown and Obama face criticism for not doing enough to deal with big problems faced by each (think Brown on the broken governing system, or Obama on housing and the economy).

It's much easier to deride critics as "declinists" than to take action that responds to criticism.

Such rhetoric is hollow. But saying that is enough to get you labeled a declnist by the two of the most powerful elected officials in the country.

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