Monday, 19 November 2012

Concession Speeches

                                       But I have spoke
With one that saw him die; who did report
That very frankly he confessed his treasons,
Implor'd your Highness' pardon, and set forth
A deep repentance. Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it.

                                  Macbeth 1(4):3-8
The best thing about party politics, though good things are few, is the tradition of the concession speech. After a season of self-serving hyperbole and mean-spirited denigration, all leading up to a moment of personal and collective humiliation, a candidate has the opportunity to reverse the damage he has done and restore the honour he has lost.

Mr. Romney provided a number of examples of "damage done" and "honour lost" during his campaign. His "47% speech" insulted almost half of his potential electorate; he later called it "completely wrong"; his promise to be a "pro-life president" by restricting access to abortion arguably put him in the same camp as the anti-abortion extremists in his party, such as Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, and Paul Ryan; his joke that "No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate" was a nod to lunatic-fringe conspiracists called "birthers," whether or not he agreed with them. His reputation as a businessman, of which he was proud, was blackened (and here).

He had a chance to serve his country by bowing out with grace after the election was lost. On the whole, he took it.

However, historian Scott Farris argues that that this speech does not match the quality of others.
"It was a speech that sounded as if he did not emerge from the election with much respect, let alone affection, for the president.  He sounded as if he really expected to win and was immensely disappointed in the result—even more so than usual.”
Now, if Mr. Romney wished to have the full benefit of the speech, he would have to follow it with a befitting lack of bitterness. Unfortunately, he may not be up to this challenge.

Still, that speech could have been much worse. For example, Canadians will remember this travesty when Jacques Parizeau, the Premier of Quebec, blamed "money and the ethnic vote" for his side's loss in a referendum on his province's independence.

Although Romney's speech could have been worse, it could also have been much better. It could have risen to the level of graciousness that Michael Ignatieff showed after a decisive defeat relegated his once-proud political party to third-party status.

Notice how different Ignatieff's tone is from Romney's, especially in the opening and closing remarks. Shakepeare could have been describing him when he wrote, "Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving it." The quotation continues, "he died/As one that had been studied in his death,/To throw away the dearest thing he owed/As ’twere a careless trifle."

Concession speeches are important because an election is a public Rite of Passage. As such, it has a process that leads the celebrants away from normal life, a process that transforms a celebrant from one status to another, and a process that reintegrates the celebrants into normal life again. Arnold van Gennep, the author of Rites of Passage, named these stages: 
I propose to call the rites of separation from a previous world, preliminal rites, those executed during the transitional stage liminal (or threshold) rites, and the ceremonies of incorporation into the new world postliminal rites.
The concession speech and the acceptance speech that follows it are the postliminal rites of the election ritual. As such, they are as important to do well as any other part of the ritual. Otherwise, a country could remain divided after an election, as the Ivory Coast was divided when both President Laurent Gbagbo and his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, each refused to concede the election to the other. An alternative ritual eventually brought closure to that election: the French military arrested President Gbagbo and sent him to the International Criminal Court.

Note to self: Van Gennep died in 1957. That means his book Rites of Passage, which I very much enjoyed reading, is public domain in Canada. I should find a way to get it onto Project Gutenberg Canada when I have the time.

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