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Rhetoric and Politics, a Match Made in Heaven

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Average Everygirl #81, Average encounters the Election, Part 3 | Panel 1: Feisty, Average, and Special stand together. In the background, Prissy's election posters plaster the wall, with the word "Prissy" across the top and "President" across the bottom. The R in Prissy's name has been added, a smaller letter hand-written between the P and the I. Feisty says, "I didn't expect student council elections to be this intense. Prissy's pulling out all the stops." | Panel 2: Feisty continues, "She's promising straight A's for all seniors, two ditch-days per semester, unlimited library book checkouts, and free donuts on Wednesdays. How can I possibly compete?" | Panel 3: Average says, "Don't give up! People are too smart to buy into all that impossible hype. Right, Special?" Special says nothing. | Panel 4: Average, turning with an arched brow, says, "Right, Special…?" Special says, "Did you say 'unlimited library book checkouts'?"

Ah, meaningless rhetoric. When I was in, oh, third grade or thereabouts, one of my cousins, a sixth-grader, ran for student body president of our elementary school. The candidates gave their speeches over the intercom system as all the classes listened, and boy was his a dilly.

My class listened in wonder, oohing and ahhing, murmuring with excitement as he painted the picture of a glorious technicolor world under his auspicious leadership. (Aside: as a reminder, I live in Arizona, where everything is brown under a blue sky. We do lease some greens and oranges on fleeting occasions. /aside)

The only specific line I recall is that he promised us the drinking fountains would flow with root beer instead of water.

Root beer free and on tap is just about the fondest dream of every all-American third-grader. This cousin of mine had the whole school in the palm of his hands.

And I was right there with them, even as a nagging thought in the back of my head asked, “But how would that even work? Where would the root beer come from, and wouldn’t it have to be re-supplied all the time? And what about the mess? Sticky fountains, sticky floors—to say nothing of how often the pipes would have to be cleared and cleaned.”

I suppressed my doubts and, along with my eager classmates, threw my support behind the magnificent promise. (What third-grader really knows how a drinking fountain works? Maybe the water comes from a tank, easily supplied with root beer in its stead.)

My cousin won the election.

We continued to drink water from our drinking fountains thereafter.

And I, a little wiser from the experience, learned never to trust the promises of a politician on the campaign trail.

The Sweet Taste of Empty Rhetoric

Alas, I seem to be in the minority with that lesson. Sometimes, when I look at the political landscape, I feel like an adult in a room full of third-graders:

“People really believe this? Has anyone thought about the logistics involved in delivering that promise?”

No one thinks about logistics if they can possibly help it. We linger in dreams and leave the heavy thinking to the professionals. But honestly, it doesn’t take professional knowledge to realize that root beer in a drinking fountain doesn’t work, so to speak. All you really need is a dose of skepticism and a pinch of common sense.

Which begs the question, again: “People really believe this?”

And I would put to you that, no, many people don’t. Many people, caught up in the rhetoric of what sounds good, know deep down that it’s only rhetoric. They enjoy the rainbow in front of them, dreaming of the pot of gold even while cognizant that in the end, the colors will fade into the ether with nothing of substance left behind.

A Day of Rhetorical Reckoning

For the true believers, the ones with their hearts set on that pot, the ones building their futures around root-beer drinking fountains, a day of reckoning is always around the corner. And when it comes, each inquiring mind will face two possible conclusions:

  1. “Oh. He was lying all along because it sounded good,” or
  2. “Those spoil-sport adults must have ruined his amazing plans.”

Rhetoric without substance to back it is empty, the junk food of communication. Some people like junk food. Some people convince themselves it’s nutritious.

And really, it’s futile for the otherwise-informed to fight this trend. We all hear what we want. We choose what to believe based on personal ideals. And sometimes, unfortunately, we support a narrative because it makes us feel good, and not because it holds any logical substance at all.

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