Modern Political Communication and Rhetoric
After four years at GW you launch into a successful career as a political strategist. The work is fun and financially rewarding. You help elect some good people, help advance some good policies, and generally carve out a good niche over a couple decades in D.C.
One day you wake up and you realize that you’re done. You’re neither bitter nor disillusioned, you’re just done. You know more former elected officials than current ones, the food in the Longworth cafeteria has finally lost its appeal, and you can’t bring yourself to go to another breakfast at the Metropolitan Club or another dinner at the Washington Hilton. You’ve made a fair amount of money, never married, and never had kids (no GW tuition to worry about), as a result have a pretty hefty amount in savings. Any work you do is because you can’t think of other ways to fill your time.
In an effort to figure out what to do about the boredom, you take a week off and drive around. You turn off your electronic devices, put an autoreply on your phone, and tell your assistant you’ll check in from payphones (assuming you can find any), but are otherwise unavailable. In your wanderings you come across Middle Falls.
Middle Falls is a good place to be, but could use some help. The high school is in need of some repairs and the athletic fields are a bit of a mess. The infrastructure is pretty old and the age is beginning to show. Nothing drastic, no bridges collapsing or anything, but things are getting frayed around the edges. You notice but don’t much care – sort of fits your mood.
You find the bed and breakfast in town, call your assistant, and say it will be a couple more days.
Turns out the town is full of interesting people and places to hang out. There’s a local bar that appears mostly to be a place for the owner’s roots-rock band to play, a local newsweekly owned by a guy who once played an accordion in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, and an art gallery owned a former professional soccer player turned abstract artist. There is the obligatory antique store called Olde Middle Falls that sells what amounts to scrap salvaged from abandoned farm houses in the region, a small book store, and the inevitable Tea Shoppe selling too cute trinkets to tourists next to the diner that sells actual coffee and breakfast to actual people. The rest of Main Street looks precisely as one would imagine it.
A couple blocks off Main Street you find a rambling house with a rambling barn for sale. The house is being sold cheap by the grandchildren who inherited it; they live far from Middle Falls and would rather never return.
A day or two later you’re no longer jittery that you aren’t checking email constantly. The bar band isn’t bad and the soccer player-turned painter is pretty good. This is a nice place to be and figure out what’s next.
You call the number on the “for sale” sign in front of the house, and offer cash on the condition you get all the contents of the home, including the TR-6 under a tarp in the barn. The owners agree. You call your assistant and do your John Cusack as Martin Blank impersonation.
Within weeks you sell your place in D.C., close your business, and put Washington in the rearview mirror.
You get a dog.
You quietly slip into the Middle Falls landscape. You spend most of your time fixing up the house and car with leisurely breaks for coffee and pie at the diner. You walk your dog.
By spring you notice more and more bicyclists on your walks through town and along the trails by the falls. You see more Subarus, Prisuses, and Tesla crossovers with bike racks and “Let me be the person my dog thinks I am” bumper stickers. The Tea Shoppe suddenly has a whole case devoted to gluten-free treats. You figure Washingtonian must have done a piece on “great day trips from D.C.” or something, and that the crowds will fade with the next article on wineries or beaches to see before they vanish or something.
You’re wrong. One of those making the trip is an executive with Motivate (the company than runs Capital Bikeshare and other bike-sharing services). Most urban areas in the U.S. already have a bike-share system in place, limiting the company’s growth. In Middle Falls, the executive sees a place to try a new version of the system – bike-shares to get around small destination towns and ride on local bike trails. People could park in a lot at the edge of town and rent a bike from an automated system, returning it at the end of the day. Such a system would require the town of Middle Falls to cooperate. Someone would have to pay for the parking lot, the town’s trails would get more use and thus need more maintenance, bike racks would have to be installed up and down Main Street (the bikes are bulky and ugly enough that no one would want to take one home, but there would need to be a way to secure them while renters stop for lunch or coffee, and so forth). The financial commitment wouldn’t be huge, and of course should the system work the town would collect some of the revenue from the rentals. The town won’t likely get rich or go broke on the bike expenses and revenue one way or the other. Because the town would need to pay for some of infrastructure and commit to some other changes, the city council needs to vote on the proposal.
Some in town think this is a great idea. Fewer cars fighting for limited parking spaces on Main Street, less traffic in town, and potentially more tourists and customers for local businesses. Others think the idea is terrible. It would mean having to pay for and maintain facilities most in town wouldn’t use, the streets would be cluttered with people who don’t know how to ride bikes plowing into each other (and cars and pedestrians and likely signposts and trees), which will keep locals away from their own streets. And if the idea doesn’t take off, the town would be saddled with useless infrastructure. For every supporter there is a reason, and for every opponent a counter.
You largely don’t care one way or the other. One of the great things about no longer working in politics is that you are no longer expected to have an opinion.
One morning while sitting at the diner drinking cheap coffee from a chipped cup you overhear two locals debating the issue. When one starts hectoring people at neighboring tables, you quickly finish your coffee, tuck your Middle Falls Communicator under your arm (more on that in a moment), and duck out the door.
You turn right out of the diner and literally bump into someone coming out of the Bryce’s Hardware Store. You’re rescued from a scolding when he recognizes you – the guy you nearly leveled is a long-time political operative who you know from your D.C. days. Turns out Motivate hired him to do a little scouting and a little talking up the idea to the locals. You chat, you catch up, and you artfully avoid taking a position on the proposal.
You slip into the hardware store for another case of oil (“if your British sports car stops leaking oil, it’s out of oil”). The ducking your old colleagues part of the plan worked, but at the expense of getting cornered by a guy from the diner. He saw you talking to your old friend and wants to know how you know him, and whether or not you support the bike scheme (nothing good is ever called a “scheme”) and what you’re going to do to help stop it. He did some research and knows who you are. He tells you the people of Middle Falls need you to stand up for them and help defeat the weekend bike nuts.
You see no choice but to get involved – better to have half the town hate you for taking a position than all of the town hate you for not supporting them.
The town has one paper, The Middle Falls Communicator, a weekly run by M.E. Sprengelmeyer. M.E. is a former reporter in D.C. who you know from your time in politics. Like most reporters he got laid off, and like some he found a small town with a little paper that needed running. He covers high school sports and city council meetings, but mostly uses the paper as an excuse to write a weekly column about whatever strikes him as interesting. Lately he is into collecting old plastic bottles, melting them down, and turning them into clocks. M.E. made a minor splash in D.C. when he bought one of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s suits and wore it to a White House Christmas party, and he is a hilarious card player, often ending poker nights by going all-in during a game (of his invention) called Fallujah or Mission Accomplished, the poker equivalent of Calvinball.
There are no TV or radio stations. There are no billboards. You have no budget to speak of.
There are four members of the town council. The mayor votes to break ties. That means votes can be 4-0, 3-1, or 3-2 because a 2-2 vote would force the mayor to decide the winner.
Jeff Miller owns a bar in town. It’s a local place, not fancy but mostly clean. The kind of place you can sit at the bar, have a burger and beer, and watch whatever is on ESPN without anyone bothering you. There is a small stage for the occasional band or show, typically Jeff and his friends, or whomever M.E. can get to join an accordion-led jam session. Jeff sponsors a local little league team, does his part in the community, and is a low-key guy. He’s on the council because civic participation is a good thing to do, and to keep the rules from either getting too restrictive (he does sell booze for a living) or too weird. It’s the perfect local bar. No one is sure where Jeff’s from, he’s not an obvious urban refugee like you are, but he’s also not a local who traces his roots back however many generations this town goes.
James Bryce owns the hardware store. Bryce immigrated to the U.S. after serving in the British military (a cook in the Royal Navy). He wound up in Middle Falls and became a house painter, had a couple guys working for him, and eventually decided that opening a hardware store would meet a local need, allow him to expand into handyman work, and make it easier and less expensive for him to get supplies. Bryce is taciturn and doesn’t much care for outsiders or change. He grew up in hardscrabble area, went to war, and moved to a hardscrabble town.
Elizabeth Noel is one of those people you can’t stand. She owns a “craft emporium” on Main Street that sells artsy teapots, wind chimes, dream catchers, and her own awful watercolor paintings of Middle Falls. She was a successful real estate agent in Washington, specializing in high-end condos and luxury buildings; she tells people that she got tired of the money chase, endlessly pointless small talk, and pretense that is Washington (“people in Washington wear masks to hide their masks, it’s worse than a lack of depth or soul, Washington lacks even any meaningful surface…”). That her departure from D.C. coincided with the collapse of the condo market is, in her telling, coincidental (“it was a sign, a blessing really…”) She calls herself “spiritual,” but has a hard time explaining what exactly she believes in or what spiritual even means. She maintains her real estate license and does pretty good business selling and renting homes in Middle Falls.
Megan Olsen is a history teacher at Middle Falls High School. Her son grew up in Middle Falls and graduated from Middle Falls High. Olsen got involved in politics as an outgrowth of being an involved parent and because she thinks it is the sort of thing that history teachers ought to do. She was active in the PTA because her son was a student, she ran for the local school board to ensure that books weren’t banned from the school library and that “intelligent design” wasn’t taught in science classes. Serving on the city council was the next logical step. To the extent she has a political ideology, it is best described as “pragmatic progressive.” She’s married to the painter/former soccer star.
Harry Mitchell is the mayor. He’s a good guy, runs the diner, and likes being called The Mayor. He likes the town and the folks who live there, likes throwing out the ceremonial first pitch of the little league season, and running the grill at the Memorial Day celebration. He likes to govern by consensus and is good at getting people around a table and affably working things out – “what this debate needs is a little pie, why don’t we move this meeting to a booth at the diner and we can figure something out” is his preferred (and often successful) approach. Harry likes being the mayor of a town big enough to have problems, but small enough that they can usually be talked through to an amicable solution. As you might expect, he dislikes voting to break ties, he prefers to either support something early in the hopes the decision will be a near-consensus, or when the outcome is a foregone conclusion. He likes to be the reconciler, not the decider.
What are you going to do, and why are you going to do it?
In your answer be sure to indicate: which side of the debate you’re taking; who your audience is and why; how you intend to approach the campaign and why; and how you are going to frame the debate and why.
Focus on strategy and approach rather than tactics and tools – for example, if you are going to hand out fliers explain why and the point they would make, but you don’t have to write them (you can, but don’t have to).
Your ideas must be feasible and reasonable.
I will be looking for evidence that you have read and understood the semester’s readings, and absorbed our class discussions – I’m not looking for footnotes or citations, but rather application of the course. Your presentation must be clear and clearly articulated. You can write your answer in the form of an essay, campaign memo, or whatever format you think best conveys your ideas and demonstrates you have done the readings and considered the class discussions.
You can discuss the situation with your colleagues, but your essay must be yours and yours alone. The final is due electronically by 9:40pm on Wednesday May 4th to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. NO LATE EXAMS WILL BE ACCEPTED. If you can’t email it, arrange with me to drop off a hard copy. Getting it in earlier is, of course, fine. Most answers will probably run about five pages – shorter and longer are fine, the object is to be complete without going nuts. I’ll answer clarifying questions to a point, but may also decline to answer and leave you to your own devices.
I look forward to your solutions.