A Note on the Origin of Political Speech

by ethan rogers

By the words political speech, I understand the same idea that every American instinctively understands by that national pronouncement “we don’t like talking politics.” Certain ideas are so contentious, so combustible, so fragile and so essential to our sacred individualities, that to attempt to resolve them through dialogue is degrading and stupid. Political speech is the articulation of ideas and sentiments that are no longer mediable by conversation. We Americans recognize the existence of these irreconcilables; we Americans demonstrate our civilized management of them by keeping as respectfully silent as possible about politics in the marketplace and by reserving our political opinions for the vote. In our domestic politics, we Americans have perfected the vote. The vote is the quiet, peaceable, and polite means by which we American resolve irreconcilable, political, disagreements. Two men with irreconcilable opinions walk into a voting place. The one comes out having become one of the vindicated majority of voters, whose opinion is to be legitimized and implemented. The other is defeated, but he holds it no shame to be defeated because he knows that the vote is sacred and civilized and because he knows that any attempt to implement his own opinion, which seemed so promising a few hours earlier, will be crushed by the overwhelming violence of the state. Such is the ingenious device, the vote, by which we Americans have agreed to resolve questions of the sort that might have otherwise come to blows.

So, what ought a citizen to do when confronted with hard questions? It is obvious that the vote is both the most polite and the most effective means of resolving the irreconcilables. So, instead of talking about politics and risking insulting someone, we ought to vote. And what about before the vote? We ought not to waste time being uncivil to those whom we can only be reconciled against through state power. Awkward efforts at dialogue, even when they do not offend, only waste energy that could be otherwise used to unite one’s own party for the ultimate vote. The vote will decide all, so what else is necessary?

Once upon a time, whenever they found themselves in an irreconcilable disagreement, our forefathers were sensible enough to stop talking. They did not prattle on, making each other feel uncomfortable. Nor did they waste time in irreconcilable contradiction. Instead, they would very politely agree upon a pair of pistols with which they would try to shoot each other. Although this method was doubtless honorable and sophisticated and though it still carries with it something of an air of ancient romance, it must be admitted that the duel had major shortcomings compared against the vote. The duel still required individuals to take the resolution of their own disagreements into their own hands. This had the consequence that duels were often postponed indefinitely, were often indecisive, and sometimes even eliminated both poles of a contradiction unnecessarily. What is more, because of the expense of armament and the subtlety of education and the political freedom which it required, the duel as a means of satisfaction was accessible only to the upper classes. The perfected vote, on the contrary, offers decisive satisfaction to every citizen regardless of class and education.

But enough of history. Once again, if the vote is the paradigm of politics, what is political speech? For speech to be functionally political, it must be a dictation of some policy action to be taken by the state. The meaning of our paradigm is that the state will take the policy action that wins the vote. The ultimate justification of political speech is not verification by criteria external to the political system. Political speech is justified when the state power implements the specific policy action. In brief, the vote means that the particular realities of social organization within our society do not depend on universal consent or agreement. The vote empowers a part of society to suppress what it sees as contradictory poles of political expression not on the basis of reason or dialogue but on the basis of the power of the state. Assuming the paradigm of the vote, political speech proves itself simply to be an effort to make man conduct himself in a particular way by taking control of the state. Any effort to determine the world through the state entails, at its bottom, sometimes more or less obviously, the threat of violence.

It is thus very understandable why Americans rightly consider talking politics so impolite. Anyone who hears political speech, whether they agree with it or not, recognizes it for what it is, viz. a threat of violence. One person may insist that persons judged responsible for the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere should be punished. Another may ask that certain persons be barred from entering or leaving the country. Another may content himself crying: “lock her up!” Whoever hears one of these phrases, or others like them, understands that their ultimate basis is in the power of the state and, therefore, that to discuss them is a waste of time. Why would anyone dialogue when the state apparatus is at her disposal? And besides, it is impolite to threaten people.

In the Hobbesian interpretation, that is, in the statist interpretation, reason is a governing, but also a limited, factor in human life. Reason is governing because everyone has the power of choice. No one can obey a command merely because it is a command. She must also decide to obey this command. Reason is the foundation of the state inasmuch as individuals must decide to participate in the state for the state to exist. However, Hobbes limits reason and with it human choice to the bare minimum necessary to catalyze the emergence of state, the minimum rationale for obedience and rule. Reason is really nothing other than a primal urge for self-preservation. Or, what amounts to the same thing, man’s urge for self-preservation has the same relation to the sum of all other possible human motives as a line does to a point. Society, the externally realized form of this reason, becomes a universal monarchy, that is, it becomes a physically almighty body politic, capable of preserving itself against a hostile external reality by overwhelming physical might. Because the ultimate state is capable of preserving itself and with it man through absolute force, the absolute state is the culmination of man’s reason for being. The particular measures adopted by the state, whether one policy or another is enacted, Hobbes supposes to be irrelevant to reason. As long as the vote is always actualized with an insurmountable capacity for violence, a statist need not concern himself with the content of policy. The man who voted one way and the man who voted another way do not have any essential reason for their difference. If they did, the imposition of policy through violence rather than through agreement would not be justifiable. Violence would crush reason into dust with impunity. If the statist rationale is correct, however, then the vote is a means of arriving at the absolute state with a minimum of the necessary unpleasantries of oppression. If the majority rules, we need not aggrandize our irrelevant personal reasonings. We need only govern. We need only be ruled.

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