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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Greene: Political Pitch

I’ve long thought political speeches and their relative effectiveness had a lot to do with the tone in which they’re delivered – almost, you might say, their musical pitch.

Reagan was called The Great Communicator, in part because his tone was both soothing and authoritative. His warm baritone convinced a nation that it was “morning in America”; he was, after all, a successful actor before running for public office.

We can confuse the tone of a politician with all sorts of things – such as likeability, honesty, or authority. We hear a certain emotional pitch and react, sometimes without knowing it, rather like dogs responding to a whistle.

The Swiss psychologist Alice Miller wrote in the 1990 edition of her book, For Your Own Good, that part of Hitler’s political success was that he so accurately replicated the enraged tone of an elder berating a child. She contends that his tone provoked an almost instant obedience across a nation of people similarly schooled.

And it’s interesting to regard the current spate of presidential sparring in terms of a pitch war.

People debate whether Hillary Clinton is too strident. But the genders tend to hear her differently: what some men hear as a shrill tone, often registers with women as conviction and strength.

Donald Trump is a seasoned reality television performer who seems completely at ease tossing around ideas whose accuracy has been widely assailed by fact-checkers. But his fans simply insist that he “tells it like it is.”

It strikes me that his style resembles the way people pontificate over a few beers… where a certain amount of exaggeration is expected - even relished. It’s semi-private speech in which the relaxed tone is inclusive. Controversial comments are brushed off as bravado, and forgiven as you might forgive a buddy who’s had too much to drink.

We may shake our heads at low points in the debates, but polls suggest that they resonate – perhaps not on an intellectual level, but emotionally.

Of course the ultimate question is, as Noam Chomsky points out, whether these politicians actually mean what they say. If they do, he says, we’re in real trouble.

But I think offensive statements might very well stick in voters’ memories long after their delivery is forgotten. And with months to go until the election, there’s still plenty of time to separate fact from affect.

As the field becomes less crowded, there will be more opportunities to analyze content and demand accountability.

Stephanie Greene is a free-lance writer now living with her husband and sons on the family farm in Windham County.
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