Martial Rhetoric Belongs in Our Political Discourse


“Political Warfare” scares some conservatives at FrumForum and elsewhere. However, martial rhetoric is, in fact, a legitimate and useful part of our political discourse.

My friend, Ken Silber, had an interesting post last month at FrumForum in which he criticized conservatives for their use of martial rhetoric to describe and articulate domestic political disputes.

“Conservatives aren’t ‘at war’ with the Left,” Ken declared; and “there are some big problems with this ‘we’re at war’ style of rhetoric… One, it’s overblown. Two, it’s inflammatory. Three, it’s self-defeating.”

Ken has written a superb post, which deserves to be read in its entirety. He certainly makes a compelling case for his point of view. However, Ken is, I think, mistaken, and for precisely the reasons he proffers: His concerns are overblown, inflammatory and self-defeating.

Ken’s concerns are overblown because as the Washington Examiner’s David Freddoso has observed:

“Our political lexicon consists almost entirely of references to war. We talk about ‘battleground states’ and ‘attacks,’ ‘trenches,’ ‘blitzes,’ ‘war rooms,’ ‘showdowns,’ ‘target-rich environments’ and ‘firestorms.’ Even the word ‘campaign’ is a term of warfare.

“We watch political television shows with names like ‘Crossfire,’ ‘Frontline,’ ‘Hardfire,’ and ‘The Firing Line.’

“[CNN’s] ‘The Situation Room’ mildly implies warfare… [And] every stump speech threatens violence in some subtle way, as when President Obama promised to ‘fight’ 19 times in one speech, and as his remark from the 2008 campaign should suggest: ‘If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.’”

Indeed, marital rhetoric is, and has always been, part and parcel of our political discourse. Americans realize that we are using war in its metaphorical, and not literal, sense. They know and understand that a warrior ethos and commitment – and not actual violence or true acts of war — pervade our politics.

Ken’s concerns are inflammatory because he suggest that by employing martial rhetoric for political purposes, conservatives may be unwittingly inciting actual violence.

“If you’re at war,” Ken writes, “the way to win is by killing the enemy.”

“It’s always possible some nut will take the ‘we’re at war’ business too seriously and then the purveyors of that rhetoric will disavow that they had anything violent in mind. But it’s better not to blur the distinction in the first place.”

But again, Americans realize that martial rhetoric is being used metaphorically, not literally. Healthy, sane Americans can hardly be blamed for the isolated lunacy and violence of the insane and mentally deranged. Otherwise, we may as well live in a bubble, abridge the First Amendment, and censor “dangerous” free speech.

Ken’s concerns are self-defeating because martial rhetoric helps to inspire and mobilize conservative activists for the “long war” against overweening government control and coercion.

Ken is concerned that martial rhetoric may be “off-putting to people who are not already fervent members of the conservative base.” This is a legitimate theoretical or hypothetical concern; however, I don’t see much evidence to support it.

A more practical political concern, it seems to me, is that in the absence of inspiring martial rhetoric, conservative activists will be left uninspired — and thus will refrain from partaking in the arduous grassroots political work that is required to win political and legislative battles.

Contra my friend, Ken, it is better to win by rallying your political troops than to lose by appeasing your political enemies.

John R. Guardiano is a writer and analyst in Arlington, Virginia. You can follow him on Twitter (@JohnRGuardiano).