A few years ago I began to notice that a lot of politicians sprinkled the word "folks" liberally in casual speech. Then it began to appear in prepared talks. Now it's everywhere.
This makes me uneasy. I don't really believe they think about "folks." They want us to think they're "folks."
I also really doubt that many of our leaders wake up thinking about "the American people," a term invoked with painful regularity in the recent dysfunction over the debt ceiling.
I try these phrases out in my mind and they just don't ring true. Things like, "most folks want (fill in something,)" and "I believe the American people sent (fill in the name) to Congress to (fill in the activity.)"
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Certainly, no one really thinks that way. So, why do they talk that way?
I've given this a lot of thought.
Humans have a need to identify with a group and certainly these qualify: "folks," "the American people." Politicians want us to identify with them through our votes and so it makes sense that they'd try to connect us verbally.
But I don't think that's all. These terms also have a certain Leave-It-To-Beaver, Norman-Rockwell-like ring to them. People who are at the top of the food chain, I think, invoke them, consciously or otherwise, to affirm their "common man" cred.
A variation of this that I see as more sinister is when people project themselves as having the same interests and concerns as other, generally more sympathetic, people who generally are identified with same enterprise.
A local example is coal operators and owners tying their political and financial interests to those of coal miners. Yes, they both earn money from coal but beyond that what exactly is the connection between people who sit safely in clean offices and have good tickets to the Wildcats and those who drop hundreds of feet underground to bring coal to the surface? Do they both share an interest in getting the federal government off their backs with all its nasty safety rules?
I don't think so, but certainly the public is much more sympathetic to the working guy covered in coal dust and so he, or some idealized version of him, is thrown up as a shield to deflect our attention from coal interests with cleaner hands but darker hearts.
Another common and troubling version of this protective/deceptive coloring is mangling history so it will fit neatly into the box of current rhetoric.
So much of the yammering about straying from our founding principles during the recent debate over raising the debt ceiling fell into this category.
Our nation was founded on debt. Consider it: a rebel government with no taxation powers waged a war against the most powerful empire of the time. Think that was free? That's why John Adams spent so much of the revolutionary war in Holland negotiating loans and Benjamin Franklin was in Paris seeking aid from the French. Debt was controversial then just as it is now. The debate revolved around issues like the size and power of the federal government, the impact on the future of the country, fear that big financial interests would profit at the expense of the new country, etc., etc.
Sound familiar? We've struggled with these issues before so any suggestion that our current condition (brought about by, guess what, fighting wars without enough taxation to pay for them) is somehow a betrayal of our country's early principles is self-serving, at best.
A remarkable example of this historical sleight of phrase turned up on these very pages recently. State Rep. Rick G. Nelson, D-Middlesboro, writing about his sponsorship of Coal Miners Appreciation Week as an antidote to "critics from California to New York to right here in Kentucky (who) are on a mission to put these fine men and women out of work," gave his own, brief version of the history of coal in Kentucky. It included this sentence: "Mine safety brought about the creation of the United Mine Workers of America, formed to advocate for better wages and working conditions." "Advocate" is a pretty mild verb here. Struggling against powerful, entrenched forces for decades, the advocacy involved bitter strikes, violence and titanic legal battles. Kentucky politicians during the middle decades of the last century gave the UMW the same appreciation they shower on the EPA and all those "foreign" critics today. Let's not pretend that the UMW and coal operators walked hand in hand to improve working conditions in some rose-colored past.
I sometimes wonder if scientists are working to isolate the gene that makes politicians different from the rest of us. That could offer some hope that this tortured approach to language and history is something they're born with rather than a lifestyle they actually chose.