The Worst Hyperbole EVER!!!! Crisis, Rhetoric, and the Problems of Democracy

Created: 02 December, 2014
Updated: 15 October, 2022
4 min read

When logic and proportionHave fallen sloppy dead    ---"White Rabbit," by Jefferson Airplane


Obama is the WORST president ever!!!!! His immigration order is the BIGGEST EXECUTIVE POWER GRAB IN HISTORY!!!!!!! NOBODY has EVER been more obstructionist than Republicans under Obama!! America today is more polarized than it has EVER been!!!! Here are some more ALL CAPS and exclamation points to prove I am really SERIOUS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

That's pretty much how it goes, at least on my Facebook page. Lots of hyperbole, lots of absolute comparisons, plenty of capital letters, and—heaven help us all—the exclamation points.

This hysterical (although not historical) typography can be annoying, but it really does have a communicative function--though rarely one that its authors intend. It communicates at least three clear messages: 1) “I have never heard of Millard Fillmore, Executive Order 9066, 1859, or the Civil War”; 2) “I have no sense of proportion”; and 3) “I don’t know how to participate in political conversations without relying on the rhetoric of crisis.” These are important things to know.

According to the standard formulation, my next paragraph should begin with, “It didn’t use to be this way. . . .”—thus implying that our hyperbole about how bad things are is the worst hyperbole EVER!!!!!!

But it did use to be this way. It has always been this way. It is woven into the fabric of our Republic. The first president to be routinely criticized as a dictator was George Washington, whose executive order of neutrality in the Franco-English War was seen as both an executive overreach and a betrayal of our French brothers. Abraham Lincoln was considered a tyrant by nearly half the country, including his assassin, who shot him while shouting sic semper tyrannis. And these were the two best presidents we’ve ever had.

At some point, the “worst ever” logic should become a victim of its own success. Since starting college in 1984, I have, by my count, lived through five “worst presidents ever,” nine “constitutional crises,” and 26 scandals that were “worse than Watergate.” And, quite honestly, I’m just too old and out of shape to work up that level of outrage every time anybody is running for something.

But it keeps going on, just as it always has. Nobody wants to believe that their problems are just average, or that their entire political lives are spent discussing the sorts of issues that most people, in most places have discussed. That makes it all seem so insignificant. We want to believe that we are involved in a great struggle between good and evil that will determine the course of humanity. We all want to be Harry Potter. Or at least Batman.

In a two-party monopoly, at least half of the politicians and pundits in the country will always have a vested interest in manufacturing a crisis. Nobody has ever won an election with the slogan, “THINGS ARE BASICALLY OK, BUT I CAN MAKE THEM A LITTLE BIT BETTER.” It just doesn’t move people to act.

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Knowing that I will probably be unfriended by those on both the left and the right, though, I’ve just got to say it: things just aren’t that bad. The United States is still an embarrassingly rich country. Most of us go about our business every day without interference from the state. The majority of us find ways eat stuff, live places, wear things—and still pay for iPhones and Wi-Fi. We almost never have to deal with pirates.

And no, I’m not saying that everything is perfect. That would be a ridiculous standard for a complex social aggregation of 300 million people. We have bad laws and bad lawmakers. Justice is often not served, and the unjust interests of the wealthy and powerful often are. We have plenty of problems, some of them very serious, and it is our responsibility to work to solve them.

But crisis rhetoric is not designed to solve problems. It is designed to create problems that need to be solved—and then to manufacture the outrage that so many us seem to need before we involve ourselves in politics. And such problems never actually get solved. This, too, is part of the game, as “angry voters” are a precious commodity in politics, while “satisfied customers” are the end of a political career. Logic and proportion are virtually impossible in a system that can only exist in its current form when they are absent.

This, it turns out, is what the door mouse really said.

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