The “rhetoric of reaction,” as described by Albert O. Hirschman in 1991, expresses suspicion of government via three theses: perversity, futility, and jeopardy. “According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy. The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to ‘make a dent.’ Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishments” (Rhetoric of Reaction, p. 7). Hirschman notes that these three theses may be used by progressives when conservatives are in power, but that perversity, futility, and jeopardy are arguments used primarily by counter-modern reactionaries.
Republicans in Congress have taken this rhetoric of reaction to new lows in their refusal, for example, to make any constructive tweaks to the Affordable Care Act. For decades, Republicans have, however, made an exception to their suspicion of government when it came to supporting the military, and the President as their Commander-in-Chief. Now, for President Obama, most seem to be making an exception to the exception. This is not to say President Obama has a foolproof plan, but Congress has not usually required that of Presidents before giving them latitude to strike or threaten credibly to do so. The divided Democratic caucus is a story for another day–as is the intentionality, or not, of John Kerry‘s utterances.
- Albert Hirschman: An Original Thinker of Our Time (3quarksdaily.com)
- Obama Syria Speech: Politicians React To President’s Address (huffingtonpost.com)
- Obama speech a model of persuasion (rss.cnn.com)
- Obama, in speech on Syria, says America can’t ‘look the other way’ (latimes.com)
- Obama’s Plea (slate.com)
- Obama’s Speech: A Cause Already Lost (newyorker.com)