When politicians declare war on something, it's not usually a good sign.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Jan. 6 2009 7:26 PM

The War on Rhetoric

When politicians declare war on something, it's not usually a good sign.

Jonathan Martin of Politico reports that Joe Biden declared "we're at war," when talking about the current economic crisis with a group of congressional leaders yesterday. Biden's spokeswoman said that the vice president-elect was making the case that passing the stimulus bill will require members of Congress to join in the same spirit of cooperation that reigned just after the 9/11 attacks.

Politicians are fond of comparing things that aren't war to war. It's both an abuse of language and a rhetorical trick. We hear about war, and we think whatever bold actions this politician is asking us to take must be worth it because, well, it's war. But a lot of the things presidents have declared war on are still with us.

Lyndon Johnson kicked off this construction in the modern age by declaring the war on poverty, but recently liberals have argued that this tendency to declare war is a Republican failing. Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer and a war on drugs—which Reagan then escalated by calling the drug scourge a "national security threat" in a 1986 executive order.

President Bush's use of the phrase "war on terror" has created a "culture of fear in America," argued Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's national security adviser, undermining "our ability to effectively confront the real challenges we face from fanatics who may use terrorism against us."

Obama campaigned against Bush's use of fear as the justifying language of public policy. But he has almost matched his running mate Biden in his use of dire language to describe the severity of the economic stakes. Perhaps they are taking their cue from FDR, the Democratic president who faced an even tougher economic mess and who sounded the war theme in his inaugural address: "I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe."

Advertisement

John Dickerson is posting this guest Chatterbox while Timothy Noah is at work on a larger project. He can be reached at slatepolitics@gmail.com.

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

TODAY IN SLATE

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

Should the United States Grant Asylum to Victims of Domestic Violence?

The Apple Watch Will Make Everyone Around You Just a Little Worse Off

This Was the First Object Ever Designed

Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

Moneybox

How the Apple Watch Will Annoy Us

A glowing screen attached to someone else’s wrist is shinier than all but the blingiest jewels.

Music

A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now …

The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.

Is Everyone Going to Declare Independence if Scotland Does It? 

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Trending News Channel
Sept. 12 2014 11:26 AM Identical Twins Aren’t Really Identical
  News & Politics
Jurisprudence
Sept. 14 2014 2:37 PM When Abuse Is Not Abuse Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 12 2014 5:54 PM Olive Garden Has Been Committing a Culinary Crime Against Humanity
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 13 2014 8:38 AM “You’re More Than Just a Number” Goucher College goes transcript-free in admissions.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 12 2014 4:05 PM Life as an NFL Wife: “He's the Star. Keep Him Happy.”
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 12 2014 5:55 PM “Do You Know What Porn Is?” Conversations with Dahlia Lithwick’s 11-year-old son.
  Arts
Music
Sept. 14 2014 11:44 PM A Little Bit Softer Now, a Little Bit Softer Now … The sad, gradual decline of the fade-out in popular music.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 12 2014 3:53 PM We Need to Pass Legislation on Artificial Intelligence Early and Often
  Health & Science
New Scientist
Sept. 14 2014 8:38 AM Scientific Misconduct Should Be a Crime It’s as bad as fraud or theft, only potentially more dangerous.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 12 2014 4:36 PM “There’s No Tolerance for That” Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh say they don’t abide domestic abuse. So why do the Seahawks and 49ers have a combined six players accused of violence against women?