Politics & Policy

The Six Rhetorical Styles of Today’s Democratic Party

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden delivers remarks in Columbia, S.C., February 28, 2020. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)
As Joe Biden’s veepstakes heats up, it’s worth pondering the different pools from which he could choose a running mate.

Word came Thursday that Joe Biden has formally asked Amy Klobuchar to submit to vetting as he continues the process of selecting a running mate. A lot of the analysis of Klobuchar, and other potential VP picks, will turn on either ideology or identity politics — indeed, as to the latter, Biden has already pledged to choose a woman. But one thing that political experience should teach us is that the impressions politicians create when they speak are just as important to how voters perceive them as their positions on the issues. This comes out in the language they choose, the themes they prefer to emphasize, and the topics they are most and least comfortable discussing.

Donald Trump, for example, was on paper one of the most moderate figures in the 2016 Republican primaries, and won the nomination largely on the strength of self-described moderate primary voters, but “moderate” in Trump’s case meant something very different than in the cases of, say, Jon Huntsman. Huntsman’s actual record and platform were rather conservative, but how he communicated to voters was not.

Within any major political party, there tend to be different styles of rhetoric that identify a politician and bond them to or alienate them from particular groups of voters. Of course, the most talented politicians can move between those styles based on the groups they are addressing. And of course, the groupings change over time: Jacksonian Democrats once dominated the party, and Jim Webb will probably stand as the last candidate to speak their language on a presidential-primary-debate stage. Yet the concept remains useful in thinking through Biden’s veepstakes. Here are the six different “language groups” that exist in today’s Democratic Party.

1. The New Deal liberals: If you’re over the age of forty, you probably remember when New Deal liberalism was the chief language of the Democratic Party. New Deal liberals may have varied a good deal in how they addressed various social and foreign-policy issues, but their fundamental framework was the world of the white, ethnic working class — the union hall, the “working man,” the “little guy.” Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt, and Tom Daschle were all New Deal liberals; so, to a certain extent, was Harry Reid. Their self-image and way of seeing the world, and the voters it speaks to, are now vaguely embarrassing to a lot of Democratic elites, but there are still a surprising number of those voters in the party. Post-election analyses found that white, working-class voters were still the largest segment of Hillary Clinton’s general-election support in 2016, and the erosion of Bernie Sanders’s support among the same constituency was a key element of his loss in the 2020 primaries.

New Deal liberalism is Joe Biden’s native tongue. Biden has shifted and pandered to a lot of different kinds of Democrats over the years, and his actual record as a senator from Delaware involves a lot of favors for the state’s big banks, but this is how he is most at home speaking. Though the New Deal liberals are a dying breed, there are still some Democrats in office who speak their language, including Amy Klobuchar and Sherrod Brown. Klobuchar’s best stump-speech riffs in the primaries invoked her working-class family roots and directly recalled FDR:

There’s an old story about Franklin Roosevelt. When he died, they put his body on a train and went through America. And a guy was standing at the side of the tracks sobbing with his hat in his hand. And a reporter said to him, Sir? Did you know President Roosevelt? Is that why you’re crying? And the guy says, no. I didn’t know President Roosevelt, but he knew me.

We will learn a lot about how Biden views his potential presidency by his choice of a running mate. There are some logical arguments for Klobuchar. Choosing her would be a way of ensuring a ticket that is in linguistic sync. The entire Biden campaign is, in fact, a test case for the enduring appeal of this style of candidate.

2. The Woke Brigade: The rising style of speaking among online progressives and on college campuses is “woke.” It’s a style that by now has its own entire vocabulary of pronouns and adjectives and its own liturgies of grievance. One of the core precepts of wokeness is that matters of race, gender, and sexual orientation are central to every public-policy issue. Several of this year’s presidential contenders — Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, and Kirsten Gillibrand — spoke largely in woke terms. Warren in particular insisted on the term “Latinx,” and had a pronounced tendency to forefront woke appeals in her closing statements at debates with no regard for context. She was never deterred by the fact that her actual voters were almost all white; this was the faculty-lounge language they wanted to hear the world framed in. Harris, of course, more or less called Biden a segregationist to his face.

While some of the woke candidates might have other political assets, the reality is that they speak to the sorts of voters who are most likely to show up and vote Biden in November anyway, so it is hard to see how choosing one of them as a running mate would add to Biden’s coalition.

3. The Socialists: A major story of the Democratic Party’s evolution over the past five years has been the rise of the “Democratic-socialists.” The differences between them and New Deal liberals on economic issues are often much less dramatic than you might think, but the differences in how they talk about the economy are quite pronounced. It’s actually an old dichotomy, going back to the divide in the American labor movement between the unions that were anti-Communist during the Cold War (Teamsters, AFL-CIO) and the more radical types who wanted to talk and think in terms of overturning the system rather than just “getting their fair share” from the bosses. For a generation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people who talk like Bernie Sanders were shuffled offstage by leading Democrats, who argued that it was nothing more than a dirty Republican trick to call them socialists. The embrace of the socialist label by Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others of their ilk is the most prominent symbol of their desire to frame everything in terms of a conspiracy of corporate power. Much as Biden needs to excite these voters, it is difficult to see how the rhetorical style of a Sanders-like Democrat could be added to Biden’s ticket without fatally compromising one or both of them.

4. The West Wing-ers: Aaron Sorkin didn’t invent the style of speaking about American politics that is now identified with The West Wing; much of it was an amalgamation of the aspirational, idealized do-goodism found in the speeches of the Kennedy brothers, Gary Hart, and Bill Clinton. But Sorkin gave it a distinct brand. West Wing candidates have an irritating tendency to frame all issues as having only one side: The idealistic Wonks who use Reason and Data and have Good Intentions as they confront a world full of cartoonish troglodytes. Hand-in-hand with this approach is a heavy reliance on platitudes designed to provide reassurance of how smart the speaker and, by extension, his listeners are. Barack Obama was a master of this form of rhetoric. O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate campaign was built around it, which is one reason why his shift to a more woke language in the presidential race was so jarring and unsuccessful. The chief standard-bearer of the West Wing-ers in 2020 was Pete Buttigieg. Warren, with her “I’ve got a plan for that” mantra, also often dabbles in West Wing-ese in between her fits of wokeness. Jimmy Carter, in his 1976 campaign, positioned himself as this kind of candidate, promising a new politics more honest and pure than what came before.

As the Obama–Biden ticket proved, and Biden’s camp must know well, a marriage between a West Wing-style candidate and an old-school New Deal liberal can be a successful partnership.

5. The Ethnic Warders: Another of the rhetorical styles with a long pedigree in the Democratic Party is the ethnic ward leader. As with the Woke Brigade, Ethnic Warders tend to frame things in racial- or ethnic-identity terms, without bothering to give themselves the theoretical pretense that they’re expressing a disinterested, academic concern for justice. “I’m here for my people, and you’re here for yours,” is the basic idea. The Congressional Black Caucus, especially its older members, is the strongest redoubt of this kind of rhetoric among today’s Democrats.

6. The Neoliberals: “Neoliberal” is the Democratic-socialists’ favorite term of abuse for politicians who make their bona fides as Democrats through a combination of liberal social views, nods to racial preferences and other corporate-world wokeness, and nanny-statism, but are fundamentally pro-business, pro-law enforcement, and pro-military. This is the message of Davos and the donor class: maximum liberty for a cosmopolitan elite, backed by a strong preference for public order. While many Democratic politicians in practice adhere to some version of the Neoliberal agenda, very few major Democratic politicians actually frame their public arguments in consistently Neoliberal terms. Mike Bloomberg represents the Neoliberal archetype: a billionaire who hates guns and large sodas with equal passion, and socializes with nobody so downscale that they would enjoy either. Bloomberg’s success at the local level illustrates New York City’s demand for technocratic management and fear of backsliding on public safety, but his failure at the national level shows how little enthusiasm Democratic voters have for his message in undiluted form.

All political parties have different language families. At the presidential level, Democrats have had by far the most success with the West Wing style of rhetoric: Lyndon Johnson in 1964 is really the only Democrat to win a presidential election since 1948 with a different rhetorical style. Biden’s vice-presidential decision may show us how far he is willing to move away from that model, and his campaign will test the durability of his own, older, New Deal-liberal style of speaking.

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