Wednesday, November 07, 2012
Wishin' and Hopin'
One thing I've noticed about Mitt Romney and Barrack Obama during the last two months has been their desperate attempts to seem like 'regular guys'. Both have been dropping their 'gs' and talkin' about folks and bucks, rather than people and dollars.
Obama has been thinkin' and hopin', whilst Romney has complained about folks bein' tired of payin' nearly four bucks for a gallon of gas.
What is it that makes a multi-millionaire and an aloof academic start adopting the speech patterns of a truck driver? Is it a cultural meme in the American psyche that associates a patrician accent with ancient forces of oppression? It didn't seem to do FDR any harm:
But could any American politician get away with an accent like Roosevelt's today? I doubt it. One of the last politicians to speak with a distinct New England accent - Edward Kennedy - has been mercilessly lampooned through the figure of Mayor Quimby in the Simpsons.
In England, perhaps the most powerful linguistic meme goes back to 1066, when the William of Normandy defeated King Harold and French became the language of the ruling class for nearly three centuries, whilst English went underground.
600 years on, people still employ French phrases like "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose" if they wanted to convey erudition and authority. Conversely, plain English stands for honesty and directness. Winston Churchill's famous "Blood, sweat and tears" speech was almost entirely Anglo-Saxon in origin.
I suspect that similar forces have been at work in the Presidential election, with both candidates trying to out-normal each other by adopting the speech patterns of a mid-western everyman.
I was particularly impressed by Mitt Romney, who was a genuinely charismatic figure. Unlike Ronald Reagan, who died his hair black, Romney used the 'Just For Men' approach, carefully allowing a little grey at the sideburns to give the illusion of a natural colour. It was a useful metaphor for Romney's policies which seemed to change hue a little too often.
I'd like to think that Romney was rumbled for having no coherent policies, but I think the result was ultimately more about the changing demographic make-up of America. Romney was a 1984 candidate. The USA has changed and cheesy, handsome WASPs can no longer rely on empty rhetoric and a bottomless pit of corporate donors to guarantee victory.
I can only assume that the Republicans will now do a lot of soul-searching and, if they have any sense, find a Hispanic candidate to upset the apple cart in 2016. Instead of folks and talkin', the meme will look further south.
In the meantime, I was relieved to see that in Barack Obama's victory speech, he was once again hoping. So am I. Good luck, Mr President.