In these times, political catchword is certainty

By: AP
By: AP

NEW YORK (AP) -- Fellow Americans, let us be clear: This news article will improve your life. Of that there can be no doubt. And those negative voices that disagree? They're fundamentally wrong. It is time, finally, to turn our backs on their failed notions.

Sound familiar? It should. This approach has emerged as the centerpiece of the 2008 presidential campaign's final phase, transcending issues, candidates' personalities, even values.

In deeply uncertain times, it seems, nothing is more certain than a sense of absolute certainty - even when it is rhetorically impossible to be sure. So sayeth the supplicants for the highest office in the land.

-"The fundamentals of the economy are strong," John McCain said definitively, shortly before parsing "the fundamentals" to mean the virtues of the American worker.

-"This is not the time for my-way-or-the-highway intransigence," Barack Obama declared Tuesday, right before engaging in a bit of just that by pronouncing the bailout plan, under its current conditions, "wholly unacceptable."

-"John McCain has gotten it wrong on so many fundamental issues," Joe Biden said Wednesday. No matter that he has often lavishly praised his longtime Senate colleague's reputation and accomplishments.

-"Iran should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons - period," Sarah Palin said last week. And generally, in English, articulating one's punctuation - particularly a full stop - is about as certain as you can get.

Could any of these four be, well, a bit wrong? Of course not. After all, they sound absolutely, convincingly sure.

This is not a tale about truth itself but one about pure, unadulterated certainty in word choice, tone, even volume. What the candidates say is one important barometer; how they've been saying it - so unequivocally, so cocksure - is another entirely.

Not so long ago, the 2008 presidential candidates occasionally ventured from their black-and-white boxes and poked around actual gray areas. They left the unequivocal certainty to the Olbermanns and Limbaughs of the world. But those moments, scarce to begin with, ended after the two national conventions.

Now, rare is "I don't know" and even more endangered is "I'm not really sure," which might evoke the namby-pambiness that critics slapped onto John Kerry in 2004. In this high-contrast season, the political dividends of nuanced candor are negligible; we want John Wayne, not Alan Alda.

"Usually, it's not this absolute," says Penni Pier, a political rhetoric specialist at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. "Because it's so close, there has to be some level of comparison for the voter. So what McCain and Obama are trying to do is articulate themselves in a way that is clear and distinct."

"Imagine," Pier says, "if someone said the other person had a point. Imagine how that would be used by the other campaign."

This sort of rhetorical tunnel vision isn't surprising in a society that dreamed up Manifest Destiny after being willed into existence by its founders' certainty of righteousness and ambition.

Nor is it unexpected during a historical micromoment where a smidgen of certainty would soothe the American breast. More of it in financial markets might be nice, as would more in foreign policy, domestic security and gas prices. The list goes on.

And so the language of being absolutely certain - "Mark my words...," "Let me be clear ... ," "There can be no doubt ..." - is, today, the language of the race to the presidency. In a world of static, certainty equals decisiveness equals strength, particularly when you're trying to shut down your opponent.

"Part of what is contributing to (the) sense of certainty is caricaturing of each other's positions," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on political communication.

"A rhetoric of dire consequences and rhetoric of blame both require syntactic structures and tone that suggest certainty," Jamieson said in an e-mail.

Voter strategy is also at play. Both campaigns are focused on energizing already existing supporters who they worry might not deliver at the polls. That approach - called "base politics" or, when it involves dividing people, "wedge politics" - means abandoning a broader message that might be more inclusive and favoring one that motivates the troops.

That means fiery oratory designed not to create nuance but to intensify and distill.

"You're not looking to expand. You're looking for a whiter shade of white or a blacker shade of black," says Todd Harris, who did communications work for McCain during his 2000 campaign and was spokesman for Fred Thompson's presidential bid this year.

He also blames a proliferation of "gotcha journalism," particularly in partisan blogs and television punditry. "The system, as it churns, virtually demands black-and-white answers," Harris says.

Look to the incumbents, too. The language of certainty has long been a feature of the Bush-Cheney administration, to the delight of some and the chagrin of others. Translating executive certainty about issues like Iraq back into campaigning is a natural step, so seamless that it can proceed unnoticed.

Neurologist Robert A. Burton sees something unexpected in the certainty breakout of recent days. "We are," he suggests, "looking for Dad."

Burton, who writes about culture and neuroscience for Salon, is the author of a recent book called "On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not." He finds it distressing that candidates are pandering to a hunger for high contrast.

"People want somebody to tell them exactly what's right," Burton says. "There's no superhero, no man-on-the-mountain oracle to give you some divine answer. ... So it's the psychology of being reassured."

There is a danger to all of this, elitist though it may sound. Life is nuanced in a way that politics isn't. Certainty is reassuring, but in a democracy it can also be self-deluding. The more certain we are, the more we're probably missing.

And that guy who sounds so absolutely certain in the heat of this moment, be it Barack Obama or John McCain? Check in with him on Jan. 21, 2009. See just how certain he is then.


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