Change: The emptiest word in politics

I’m sick of hearing the word “change.” Last night, during the Democratic debate in New Hampshire, we heard it 90 times. Change, change, change. Blah, blah, blah. It’s an utterly empty word. Meaningless. The worst of political rhetoric. The worst of political bullshit. Pure spin. Cynical marketing. Juvenile pandering. ‘I’m change.’ “No, I’m change.’ ‘Are not.’ ‘Am, too.’ Nya, nya, nya.

Oh, just shut up and do something. Or at least say something. And don’t say “hope,” either. Say something about the economy (note that on Facebook — which is overwhelmingly and disproportionately in Obama’s camp — the users wanted to hear a lot more about that). And health care. And education. And technology. And Iraq. And energy. And the environment. Or just tell us what change means.

glassplate.jpgGod bless Charlie Gibson last night — the best moderator on any debate so far, I’d say — who pointed to the emptiness of change when Barack Obama and John Edwards bragged about doing in those evil lobbyists and stopping them from corrupting democracy by buying legislators meals. Charlie pointed out that the only change in the rule is that they can’t buy lawmakers meals while sitting down. Here’s the solution to that: a one-handed a plate-and-glass holder.

And the truth is that we don’t really like change all that much. Corporations, universities, governments, and marriages are built around avoiding change. We fear change.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s plenty we should be changing, starting with this primary system that is drowning us in rhetoric and advertising and attacks, not to mention undue influence given to the ministates of Iowa and New Hampshire (I say we should hold a national primary no earlier than July). We need to get health care. We need a broadband policy. We need an energy policy. We need so much. It’s not change. It’s the work of government.

Here’s a cloud — and what an appropriate metaphor that is — from the transcript of last night’s Democratic debate (thanks to Tagcrowd). I suppose I should take comfort in the fact that “think” is bigger than “change.”

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  • I hear you, but I don’t think a televised debate is the place to expect a lot of policy detail. They’ve all issued policy information, to a greater or lesser degree, on what you can expect from them. So the information is there if we want it. I just don’t think the debates are about that. They’re about Blink-type info, to my mind. There is only time for sound-bites.

    As for “change” itself, I don’t know but I’ll bet “change” is always a big theme for the out-of-office party whenever a two term President is on the way out. Particularly this year. Surely it’s a barometer for how frustrated many people are with their leadership.

  • Cooler Heads

    I like Obama, but he is running as a symbol. He’s the vessel of change and hope. Very appealing in a romantic sense, but can he actually do the job? Clinton is so shrill, so annoying, and her husband is her biggest hurdle in getting elected. It is nearly impossible for her to be anything but the cuckolded wife of Bill when he’s out campaigning for her.

    Edwards is angry and annoying. Richardson is irrelevant.

    I had hoped for more from this field.

  • There was meaningless “change” talk during the GOP debate as well. And I agree — as many apparently do — that Gibson has been the best moderator so far.

    I wouldn’t change negative advertising, though. It’s one of the main ways that actual policy info reaches voters, even if it means the attacked candidate has to “correct” some spurious charge.

    Also, while the Facebbok data is interesting, I don’t think a debate agenda need be driven entirely by any poll — scientific or otherwise. There are important issues people need to hear debated, even if a particular group doesn’t want to hear more about it.

    In this example, the Dems generally want to hear more about domestic policy, and not much about foreign policy or the war. But it’s not like whichever Dem gets the nomination won’t have to have good answers on those topics in the general election. (And the reverse is true for the GOP.)

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  • Ughhhh

    You are so right….talking about “change” is so vacuous, so meaningless. It’s like saying you’re in favor of kids and puppydogs.

    The important questions are: what issues will the next president throw his or her weight behind; what is their ability to come up with big ideas that can get done; and has the candidate proven they can actually do what it takes to make big things happen.

    I am actually intrigued by the types of leadership style that each candidate brings. Hillary and McCain clearly have the ability and willingness to wade in the mud, to work the system, Obama would have to use his bridge-building ability…his popular support and his intellect to push his agenda through.

    Who has the big ideas and the ability to get them done?

  • I disagree. I think that the word change speaks volumes here. To me, it signals that the American public is generally not content with anything that’s going on in the country. It’s also a little scary, in that there’s a fork in the road up ahead with one way pointing to Kansas and the other pointing to worse. All this without regard for the significance and power of what just a degree of change can do:

    – social media
    – diversity
    – gay marriage

    Change is absolutely happening in corporations, universities, governments… I don’t think we point to it enough; the “writers strike” is a perfect example. New media affects everyone: (again) corporations, universities, governments… but somehow Hollywood has laid claim to taking the brunt of it. Why shouldn’t I be paid more too?

    Of all places, I heard this on a “Best of” episode of Nancy Grace last night, and somehow I think it fits: When a would-be murderer’s father was debating his son’s reason for taking his child out of daycare, he said, “There is a difference between a degree of fever and being sick.” And you know, he’s right. While either constitutes a change in the body, one “fires it up” and the other breaks it down. And it’s the doctor’s job to figure out how to treat it, either as a bacterial or viral infection, and in some cases, not at all. Either option is delicate and deliberate. Either constitutes change.

    Bottom line: Yes, we’ve heard a lot of talk; but you know we’re not going to get into the nitty-gritty until the fall. Yes, as a people, we don’t like change; but the rhetoric, the spin, the marketing, the bullshit surrounding the word–we need it. Without it, we wouldn’t know how we’re feeling, and we wouldn’t get new episodes of “Lost.” And that’s really what we care about.

  • Colin Kerr

    Spot on. Even worse is hearing politicians/corporations talking about The Change Agenda. That said actions speak louder than words so would be interesting to see if elected Obama would actually change anything, including US Foreign policy.

  • I just changed over to an iPhone. I love it.

  • Grayson, Ha! – “…just changed to an iPhone.”

    Didn’t want to wait for the 3G model?

  • pd simon

    thats because you’re a twit! If the networks and the press did a better job of addressing what kind of “change” people are obvioously clamoring for, then maybe it wouldnt be so “empty.” As Obama’s success makes clear, one meaning to change may be greater public involvement, more hope, more enthusiasm from the public about the politics. All you old farts are scrambling because Obama, as well as other some of the other candidates, gives the public something to believe in.

  • Here is the dialogue which Jeff Jarvis seems to be praising:
    “OBAMA: I just want to add, I agree with John, which is why I prohibited lobbyists from buying meals for members of Congress…

    EDWARDS: Good idea.

    OBAMA: … because — and some of them complained. They said…


    OBAMA: They said, “Where am I going to eat?”

    GIBSON: They can now buy food for members of Congress if the members of Congress are standing up. That’s my understanding of what the rules have changed. You can’t sit down and eat, but you can stand up and eat. Tell me why that’s change.

    OBAMA: Here’s what we did. They can’t buy meals. They can’t provide gifts. They can no longer lend corporate…

    GIBSON: They can have huge parties for you as long as you’re standing up.

    EDWARDS: They can’t eat as much if they’re standing up, Charlie.

    OBAMA: That’s true.

    I don’t think Charlie Gibson’s remarks brought clarity to the issue.

    Under the “S1 Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007” “Gifts from lobbyists can only total $100 per year.”

    I’m not sure how that fits in with lobbyists throwing a politician a big party or eating while standing vs. eating while sitting.

  • I just love the election season. All the dejected socialists get geeked up. They think new politicians are going to improve their miserable existence.

    The only thing on the planet ye commi’s are optimistic about is the *next election*.

    Jeff, you clueless statist. We don’t need an “energy policy” or an “education policy”. We need far less policies altogether. That would be a real “change”, would it not?

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  • This overintellectualization about change is why we will stay the same. Do you really mean to attack a fundamental motive for everything in the CheneyBush adminsitration.- change preemptive war policy, change unilaterlism, change deficit spending, change unaccountable war profiteering, change torture. Change is the one verb that summarizes it all.

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  • Jeff,
    Indeed, the keyword “change” has been increasingly in blogs, and so has “B…S…”

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