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Hyperbolic Discourse Is Literally Destroying Democracy
Your opponents’ policy preferences aren’t going to lead us to certain doom, and other ways hyperbole degrades public discourse.
“I call it truthful hyperbole,” Donald Trump famously wrote in his 1987 book The Art of the Deal. That a promoter like Trump (or any advertiser, for that matter) would employ, in Trump’s words, this “innocent form of exaggeration” is hardly surprising – let the buyer beware. Less justifiable is hyperbole’s unrestrained use when communicating about serious political, social and cultural issues, and Trump is far from the only offender.
When I asked Ed Morrissey of Hot Air to comment on hyperbole in our modern political discourse, he said that while Trump deserves a “lifetime achievement award” for hyperbole, our current president Joe Biden should make it into the “Hyperbole Hall of Shame,” referring to Biden’s 2012 comments to African-Americans when he said that if Republicans won the upcoming election, they would "put y'all back in chains", and more recently when Biden called new voting laws in Georgia "Jim Crow 2.0."
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez telling us "The world is going to end in 12 years if we don't address climate change." Or conservatives telling us we have to have this law in Florida because gays are sexually "grooming" kids in the public schools. Or Tucker Carlson talking about "Canadian-style tyranny" over the trucker convoy. Or people saying that J.K. Rowling expressing nuanced thoughts about gender ideology is literally killing people. Or Matt Gaetz (and others) asking why we should care about Russia invading Ukraine when we have to worry about our own "invasion" of immigrants at the Southern border. You would think the actual prospect of mass death in Ukraine would put our domestic catastrophizing in some sort of perspective.
Morrissey’s plausible hypothesis is that a combination of social media and a lack of perspective driven by historical ignorance feeds the tendency toward hyperbole.
“I think that we live in an age of hyperbole, largely due to the competitive nature of social media and the narcissism of younger Americans,” he told me. “Everything is always the greatest or worst among the young until they get a better grasp on history, but they're not being taught history over the last generation, or perspective for that matter either. They're being indoctrinated into narratives that thrive on the hyperbolic treatment of grievances, which have informed our politics and radicalized our discourse.”
I asked National Review’s Jim Geraghty about the competitive nature of social media, and while he shares Morrisey’s concerns, he also sees hyperbole in the modern internet-age media environment more broadly:
In all kinds of fields - music, moviemaking, book writing, etc., the barriers to reaching an audience have never been smaller, but the flip side of that coin is that the challenge of standing out in the crowd has never been higher.
This applies to political writers, candidates, and elected officials, too. And all of those run on attention - and in the case of that latter two, donations (other than self-funding millionaires, etc). So saying something sensible and normal may be factually correct, informative, and serve the public well . . . but it isn't likely to stand out in a crowd.
What will stand out in a crowd is the most incendiary assessment possible. Not, "my opponents are mistaken" or "my opponents' ideas will backfire and harm the country" but "my opponents want to destroy this country and create a dictatorship and crush you and brainwash your children.
A bad form of hyperbole: “If my opponent wins the election, America as we know it will cease to exist.” A good form of hyperbole: “the most beautiful pool this side of Pompeii.” (Thus did William F. Buckley Jr. describe the indoor pool at his home.)
On a more serious note, hyperbole has its place in comedy, which has its place in political and social discourse in the familiar forms of satire and parody. Jonathon Swift’s classic essay “A Modest Proposal” was an ingenious work of overstatement, carrying to a monstrous, fantastical conclusion what Swift viewed as the contemptuous and callous attitudes of too many in England towards the Irish poor. Needless to say, Swift made his point without seriously suggesting cannibalism as a legitimate social program.
Contrast this with the breathless warnings in recent years that the United States was but one Supreme Court justice away (and then one more . . . and one more) from a theocracy:
Carlton W. Veazey, Center for American Progress, 2005 : “On the Brink of ‘Theocracy’”: “I think we are teetering on the brink of theocracy and the Christian Right could conceivably use the battle over the judiciary and weakening support for reproductive rights to push us over the edge.”
Ian Milhauser, ThinkProgress, 2019, referring to Senator Josh Hawley: “The one man most likely to turn the U.S. into a theocracy.”
Linda Greenhouse, New York Times, 2021: “God Has No Place in Supreme Court Opinions”: “[T]hese examples are sufficient to raise the question for those of us not onboard with the theocratizing of America: Who let God into the legislative chamber?”
And then there is the Handmaid’s Tale panic that Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination triggered [emphasis added]:
Olivia Beres, Slate, 2020: “The impact of America’s policies on Black women, women of color, low-income women, indigenous women, immigrant women, and queer and trans folks already reflect conditions similar to those in The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Though hyperbole may not be the most serious of the impediments to clear, open and honest debate in the public square, nonetheless, the tendency to frame arguments or an opponent’s arguments in recklessly extreme terms is at once off-putting and intellectually fraught, ultimately yielding diminishing returns.
It’s a symptom of interlocutors as brands feed content to their customers while institutions and individuals become more interested in self-preservation than in achieving workable solutions to address their putative concerns. This can lead to a spiral of increasingly alarming and dire messaging that is good for business but bad for finding common ground.
Tracinski tells me he finds this tendency to gloss over or downplay progress to be a game changer, and not in a good way:
In fact, the world is on balance a pretty good place, and we're better off by every measure than at any time in human history . . . If we recognized the reality of progress, how would we talk to each other, what questions would we have, what issues would we regard as important?
One answer is that the apocalyptic approach is inherently hostile to liberalism, because it provides cover for those who want to tear down our existing freedoms. How can we let paper barriers like free speech or property rights get in our way when everything we hold dear is just inches from behind destroyed forever?
Hyperbole and apocalyptic rhetoric favor revolutionary answers, from the left or the right, rather than incremental ones. They favor burning down the existing system instead of reforming it. That means they also tend to favor authoritarian solutions, a strongman who will sweep away all resistance to the drastic emergency action that is required.
But if we recognize the existence of progress, our approach would be more incremental and reformist. It would focus more on debate and persuasion and the acceptance of political compromises, because when it's a matter of taking something that's already good and making it a little bit better, there is time for discussion and considering different arguments and accepting compromises or partial victories.
The impulse, as Geraghty mentioned, to want “to stand out in a crowd,” is not in itself wrong. Anyone involved in public debate or discussion in political, social and cultural issues does not want to be just another voice shouting into the void. Making a difference requires being heard. Framing persuasive arguments while maintaining a commitment to facts and reality is difficult work, but relying on the shortcut to attention that hyperbole can deliver is in the end a Pyrrhic victory.
This superficial approach to politics sadly has become the norm, Morrissey fears:
In short, we're addicted to [hyperbole], which is why we see it now as a constant in politics. If we are not facing The Worst Situation Humanity Has Ever Faced, and are not Just Ten Years Away From Absolute Doom, few will take any interest in whatever issue is on the table otherwise, even if it's serious and needs attention. We've become fundamentally unserious. And I'm not sure how we get back to becoming fundamentally serious again.
As for Tracinski, he agrees that breaking that addiction is vital to solving the seemingly intractable problems that continue to divide our nation, and that embracing genuine and plain spoken discourse promises far superior outcomes than any points scored via rhetorical gimmicks:
For any kind of problem, urgent or not, serious or minor, there is no way to solve it without thinking, and there is no thinking without open discussion and debate. The use of political hyperbole is intended to induce panic and shut down debate, increasing the likelihood that the proposed solution will be the wrong one and will make things worse instead of better.
And that’s no hyperbole.