On Burke On Democracy

Janette Kenner Muir

George Mason University

I come at Burke through the perspective of a rhetorical critic. I do not profess to be well versed in the varied philosophical underpinnings or intricate weavings of literature that Burke expounds upon in his numerous essays. Nor do I begin to understand the full-range of applications that Burkean philosophy allows us. What I do know is that there is much in Burke that can be applied to the realm of democracy and social change, and that his corpus provides the critic with a wide range of rhetorical tools that may help us better understand the symbolic dimensions of politics. I look forward to this seminar as a way to further explore not only Burke's perspective on democracy (did it, for example, evolve over time?), but also to reacquaint myself with some of Burke's thinking about symbolic interaction as it relates to social change.

I'm certain that we will spend some time in the seminar hashing out the definitions of democracy and democratic social change, especially as we ask ourselves whether a "pure" democracy has ever indeed existed. Burke's "Electioneering in Psychoanalysia" addresses the cyclical nature of the electoral process as it cunningly maintains a one-party government, where the same essential politics continue to exist, while coronations and depositions provide an illusion of change (PLF, 134). In his satirical fashion, Burke offers us a vision of America through this framework. Candidates continue to promise change and new ideas, yet fall back on the same stale policies, and the cycle of political deception Burke describes is perpetuated. In his essay "Fascism-Democracy," he explores a definition of democracy as "organized distrust," built on recognized inefficiencies in government (CS, 114). This ties directly to the portrait Burke paints in describing the people of "Psychoanalysia."

Burke's discussion directly addresses what so many people seem to feel about the nature of democracy and about American government in particular. E. J. Dionne notes in Why Americans Hate Politics that political campaigns have increased in their negative nature because of a sharp decline in faith in the American government. He writes:

To appeal to an increasingly alienated electorate, candidates and their political consultants have adopted a cynical stance which, they believe with good reason, plays into popular cynicism about politics and thus wins them votes. But cynical campaigns do not resolve issues. They do not lead to "remedies." Therefore, problems get worse, the electorate becomes more cynical... (17)
This cycle is heightened in campaign years where we see our own "Psychoanalysia" perpetuated as focus turns to talk of landslide victories, lame duck candidates, "galloping" forecasts, and other luminous metaphors ("candidate x is in bed with rich lobbyists," "candidate y is pounded mercilessly in the polls"). And we even have our own Hirsutus, the pathetic candidate (or, perhaps, outgoing president) who fades away, replaced by a new Diaperus who provides a fresh-face perspective to the same old ideas. Regardless of the ideological frame, the basic message of the democratic system remains the same. It is a system of checks and balances, of watchdogs and spectators, an endless process of competition and positioning.

Yet it is somewhat easier to be cynical of those things we know little about. The more knowledgeable we are about manipulation of the democratic process the more empowered we can be to make better political choices. Some of Burke's writings in this regard provide us with clear examples of what our roles as critics should be in this society. "The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle" is a prime example of Burke's effort to underscore the Hitler's "magical powers" in persuading the masses to follow his lead. His discussion of scapegoating, victimization, and unification devices help the reader to prepare for similar possibilities in our own country. His later work "In Haste" provides us with a fascinating review of how the principles of personality and instrumentality play out in American culture.

Burke's ideas are also generative. Brock's critique of Johnson's Viet Nam speech provides a specific way to analyze the persuasive nature of appeals made by political leaders (in Rueckert, 454) thereby providing a better understanding of how political reality can be shaped by those in power. Peterson's work on environmental rhetoric, including the assessment of farmer motivation and National Park construction of Agent/Scene relationships, also provides insight that impacts on how humans can come to grips with that "little fellow" known as Ecology. Lentricchia underscores that the literary critic can make an important contribution to the formation of community, and his argument for criticism as a social force is in many ways a reflection of his attempts to grapple with Burke's work (19).

Burke is ever casting about for ways to offer critical insights without falling into a purely debunking framework. Burke moves toward satire as a way of positively casting a negative admonition. His explicitly satirical comments on the economic, social and political trends of his time as well as his personal satirical writings--his poetry and biographical anecdotes--all reflect his commitment to the ironic mode. Rueckert argues that satire, like tragedy, "performs a purgative function which enables one symbolically to sterilize' those trends or yearnings in oneself which might lead to physical violence and war" (54). For Burke, the comic attitude would ultimately mean maximum consciousness. Transcendence, he argues, occurs by noting one's own foibles (AT, 171). A comic frame of reference, "opens up a whole new field for social criticism, since the overly materialistic coordinates of the polemical-debunking frame have unintentionally blinded us to the full operation of alienating' processes" (AT, 167). Burke identifies the comic analysis of exploitation as a way to be on guard for subtle ways that the public domain becomes privately appropriated (169).

Burke also offers us insight into the increasingly mediated nature of the political process. As I have argued elsewhere, his discussions of synecdoche (and the other Master Tropes) provide a useful vocabulary in analyzing visual imagery and the power of the encapsulated "bite." Naming, scapegoating, and foreshadowing are three specific tools by which political aspirants induce attitudes in the citizenry, offering up some potent mixtures of visual and verbal elements. From carefully concocted visual sound bites to lancing political cartoons to professionally produced advertisements, the political process is now heavily reliant on the "seen" image. Burke's discussion of part to whole relationships is particularly insightful in this area, since Burke himself admits the under-explored power of synecdoche in human social relations.

In his second appendix to Attitudes Toward History, Burke discusses the seven "offices" of human motivation: to govern, serve, defend, teach, entertain, cure, and pontificate. In the end, he frames the current "situation" at this stage in history as facing a basic educational problem: How to best adapt the symbol-using animal to the conditions of world empire (375). The "critic," following Burke, would do well to maintain a comic reflection on her own frame of reference, and should further understand this frame of reference as a conduit for informing others about the political landscape they face. Hugh Duncan reminds us in the introduction to Burke's Permanence and Change that

There is hope if, if we learn to think about action in society as a kind of action that arises in, and continues to exist through, communication. What Burke offers . . . is a methodology, a way of thinking, and of testing our thinking, about how we act as human beings. If, in the suffering and horror of our time, we can develop a method for the analysis of what symbols do to us in our relations with each other, we may yet learn to lead a better life. Such is Burke's message to our time. (xliii) [italics in original]
With regard to the extra credit question on Burke's perspective on the Internet...I suspect he might be concerned about the bigger and better technology, the constant striving for the better machine to make the system work perfectly. As the technology separates us from our natural condition so does it separate us more from humanity. On the other hand, the power of the Word becomes ever more so important, and the sheer individuality of all of these nodes on the net may yet prevent the single party government that Burke decries in his Psychoanalysia. (Hopefully the extra credit points cancel out my lost points for tardiness!)


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