Monday, October 16, 2017

Steve Bannon's Value Voters Summit Speech: Rhetoric of Polarization

A movement pulled in two directions?

My two previous posts mentioned that Steve Bannon’s Values Voters Summit speech used polarizing rhetoric. I promised to explain polarized rhetoric.

Polarized rhetoric pushes listeners to get out of the middle and pick a side. Although radical speakers often use polarization, it is unusual for powerful people to use it. Instead, powerful people use power to get their way, which, in turn, requires consensus-building. During his speech, Bannon identified himself with the alt-right, a loose collection of extreme right-wing groups that include the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, Richard Spencer’s neo-Nazi movement, certain militia groups, and various others. Although Bannon tried to deny it, these groups all advocate white supremacy. Bannon managed Donald Trump’s campaign during its successful closing months, and served in the White House until his presence became too controversial. Yet, Bannon’s polarized speaking style has not equipped him to lead.

As we will recall from my earlier post, Bannon used war metaphors to describe his conflict with the Republican establishment. Bannon cited Ecclesiastes: “a time of war and a time of peace.” He continued: “this is not my war. This is our war. And ya’ll didn’t start it. The Republican establishment started it.”  He specifically attacked Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and Bob Corker for not sufficiently supporting President Trump’s agenda. Corker had criticized Trump’s White House as “adult day care.”

When people of good will disagree with one another, they might debate, dispute, argue, or yell at one another. They might compromise. When people are at war, however, they try to destroy one another. By declaring war against the Republican establishment, Bannon signified that he was not trying to make deals: his goal, which the cheering crowd apparently shared, was to destroy them. We now have two opposite sides, with conservatives forced to choose one or the other. This is polarization, and it is exactly the effect that radical agitators try to create.

In their excellent book, The Rhetoric of Agitation and Control, John Waite Bowers and Donovan Ochs explain that agitation occurs when people who are outside of the power centers work to get major changes that the established authorities resist. Agitation takes five steps:

Step One is “Petition of the establishment.” This is when reasoned persuasion takes place.

Steve Bannon, WH
If petition fails, Step Two is “Promulgation,” when the movement spreads its views. This has been going on for years in the conservative movement, notably among extreme conservatives such as Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Richard Spencer, and, yes, Steve Bannon. Right-wing websites like, Before It’s News, or Gateway Pundit developed and spread a body of doctrine. For the most part, people of other points of view paid no attention at all to these information sources, so the growing discontent and the arguments that the agitators were making surprised them.

Step Three is “Solidification.” Here, the agitators partially disappear from public view while they further develop their doctrines and persuasive methods.

Step Four is “Polarization.” If the movement has not yet succeeded, then a major effort is made to force people to choose sides. Polarizing rhetoric does not try to get a majority. It tries to force people to choose sides, so that people who side with the radical rhetorician will be extremely committed. Name-calling, insults, and so forth are common tactics. Donald Trump’s name-calling (“Crooked Hillary” or “Little Marco”) was typical.

Step Five is “Escalation/confrontation.” This is where the radical makes unreasonable demands, tries to create disruptions, or behaves offensively. This stage's purpose is to increase polarization. Frustrated by the demands of leadership, Bannon’s speech was starting this stage by, for example, trying to expel insufficiently motivated conservatives like Corker and McConnell.

The next two stages, steps six and seven, involve increasing violence. It is, sadly, possible that we will reach that point. (Was Charlottesville a start?) Remember that the anti-Vietnam war movement often became violent.

What Bannon did not seem to grasp is that his revolution has succeeded. Donald Trump won the presidency and very conservative Republicans control Congress. Nevertheless, President Trump’s populist agenda does not seem to be worked out well enough that he can implement it. Congress is reluctant to approve radical new laws unless the president exercises far more leadership than what Mr. Trump exerts. Here we run into a basic problem that Bannon failed to understand: once you win, you need to lead. Once you are elected, you are no longer an outsider; you are now the establishment. Repeal and replace Obamacare? But replace it with what? No one seems to know! Implement tax reform to help the middle-class? But what kind of tax reform? The one-time agitators do not seem to have a plan.

While polarizing their hearts out, right-wing agitators have, in recent years, often announced that they are co-opting the ideas in radical left-wing organizer Saul Alinsky’s book Rules for Radicals. They don’t seem to have read the whole book. Alinsky explains: “The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.” It is not enough to win; you also need a plan for victory. President Trump should be able to get any legislation that he wants, but he needs to work with Congress to present constructive, detailed ideas. This requires much different skills from those of a polarizing persuader. I noted in my previous posts that Bannon spoke about values, but never said what his values are. This is the larger problem: Bannon and Trump knew how to win, and wisely identified legitimate discontents that troubled Republican voters, but they have no plan to solve those discontents. Radicals need to polarize to win, but they need consensus to lead.  

For more information about Bowers and Ochs’ theory, see this excellent website by Professor Lee McGann of Monmouth University. The updated edition of Bowers and Ochs book is still in print and highly recommended.  

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Steve Bannon: What Kind of Values Voter?

Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon was a featured speaker at the 2017 Values Voters Summit in Washington DC. This is mostly a conservative Christian group. Following up on my earlier post, I find myself wondering what values Bannon advocated. I’ll base this post on Bannon’s comment, in his Values Voters Summit Speech, that, “Right now, it’s a season of war against a GOP establishment.” He called fellow Republican Sen. Bob Corker “a real piece of work” for criticizing President Trump. He threatened Mitch McConnell’s job. Since Bannon talked about his values very little, other than vaguely endorsing “Judeo-Christian” values, I have some pointed questions and comments. Let’s call this “values clarification,” just like in the 1960’s, because we can’t talk values until we know which Judeo-Christian values we are talking about. Can we? 

1.  Bannon repeatedly used foul language during the speech. This was really a speech to values voters? Why did values voters applaud and cheer a speech loaded with profane language? My church-going parents would have been horrified to hear such language on the street, let alone at a Values Voters Summit. Would it not be good for conservative Christians to talk like conservative Christians? For credibility's sake?

2.  Bannon repeatedly praised his audience as good people, carefully not saying what was good about them. That was slippery, but smart. As soon as he got specific, he might have lost some of them. Being vague about his values let his audience assume (probably wrongly) that he shared their values. 

3. Unlike, say, Richard Spencer, Bannon insisted in this speech that he favored “economic nationalism,” not ethnic nationalism. Part of the alt-right’s idea is to repackage offensive ideas under a technical-sounding name, thus making them sound less awful. Still, although Bannon insisted that the alt-right is not about racism, this lacks credibility. Bannon made his lack of credibility clear when he took time to attack the Southern Poverty Law Center as a “hate group.” Maybe he was upset that they had called the alt-right a hate group. Let us remember the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2017 resolution about the alt-right: 

WHEREAS, Racism and white supremacy are, sadly, not extinct but present all over the world in various white supremacist movements, sometimes known as 'white nationalism' or 'alt-right'; now, therefore, be it

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, June 13–14, 2017, decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

The convention passed their resolution, but is the evangelical flock listening?

4. Let me propose a hypothetical Christian values voters summit based on the Sermon on the Mount: blessed are the poor, love your neighbor as yourself, bless those who persecute you, and so forth. Instead of blessing those people who Bannon thought were persecuting him, he attacked people (like Corker and McConnell) who supported his views, but not strongly enough to please him. In his speech, Bannon seemed more interested in fighting people with whom he disagreed than in uniting the nation. He was even fighting with people who mostly agreed with him, Still, that kind of polarization is typical of radical speakers. I would encourage Mr. Bannon to make his values clear, and to show how he believes they are consistent with the Judeo-Christian values that he mentioned but neglected to explain.

Soon, I will deliver my promised post about polarization. 

White House photo

Follow-up: here is the promised post discussing polarization.  

Steve Bannon's Values Voters Speech: Did He Talk about Values?

Steve Bannon

Former Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon spoke yesterday at the Values Voters Summit. Values were not Bannon's issue; victory was the issue. That is, in a speech at a values summit, Bannon mostly talked about strategy, not about values. I found this to be a bit disappointing.

Bannon's speech used a consistent tactic of the religious right: mix religious or moral issues with standard conservative issues that lack religious content. That creates an impression that conservative policies arise from a religious basis. In Bannon’s speech, the religious values almost disappeared among the conservative political and economic issues. Globalization versus nationalism? Electing nationalist leaders? Free market economy? Opposing social changes? Election strategies? The Bible, and Christian doctrine, tend to be quite silent on those issues. Yet, simply by speaking at the Values Voters Summit, Bannon gave the impression that these views, which are secular and controversial, needed to be accepted, not because they are right, but because they are associated with various values. What were those values? Who knows? Bannon never said. 
What surprised me is that Bannon said little about values, and instead talked about fighting for political issues that bore no obvious relevance to values. In Bannon's speech, values voters became victims of an establishment that didn’t care about them. He assumed that he and his audience shared values, although no one said what those values were, and he instead pictured a massive battle, a fight that he accused the other side of starting. He connected values voters with the alt-right, which is the new word that nationalists and white supremacists now use, since old words like “Ku Klux Klan” and “Nazi” have developed bad associations. The alt-right is very much not the traditional right-wing: at the outset, Bannon said: “It’s not my war. This is our war. The alt didn’t start it. The establishment started it.” He said that Mitch McConnell and others "personified" the Republican establishment.

There was more personification in this speech. Distinguishing between the alt-right and the Republican political establishment, Bannon said that "the politics of personal destruction as personified by the permanent political class is the only way they can win.” Bannon said that the establishment worldwide was nervous: “They understand that you’re the best transmission of the best values of the Judeo-Christian left.” What are the Judeo-Christian values? Bannon never said.

Readers will recall that, during the 2016 election campaign, a sound recording emerged of candidate Donald Trump talking about groping and assaulting women sexually. Mr. Trump dismissed this as "locker room talk." Values voters were, apparently, not horrified enough to vote against Mr. Trump. Bannon recalled that he told future President Trump that “They’re looking to take their country back and you’re the vehicle and instrument that’s going to do it. They don’t care about locker room talk because we’re going to bring to that debate the women that William Jefferson Clinton attacked and his wife covered for him.” Values were not the issue; victory was the issue. Bannon said this clearly: “I’m all about winning. You know why? Because we have to win.” Later, he said, "these folks are coming for you." It was a battle, and he wanted his applauding crowd to be afraid.

Also, Bannon’s war was more against the Republican establishment than against the Democrats. This was not because the Values Voters might turn into Democrats; it is because the culture war utterly rejects the Democrats, and is now also rejecting the mainstream Republicans. This is the strategy of polarization, which I'll talk about later.

Values were not the issue; victory was the issue.

White House photo

See my follow-up post about Bannon's values.