There are two things that Theresa May wants you to know about the upcoming general election. There are no points for guessing them — she has barely said anything else since announcing the election on the 18th April. In the absence of anything concrete whatsoever (as the Tories are still developing their manifesto), all she can offer is the notion of “strong and stable leadership” instead of a “coalition of chaos”. She’s inordinately proud of these statements — like someone who’s just learned what alliteration means. If she’d just used them once or twice, they might have been effective. But that would require moderation. May prefers to hammer home her message (literally, the only one she has) with all the rhetorical subtlety of a toddler screaming “ice-cream, ice-cream” until the beleaguered parents can’t bear it any more and cave in. Anything for a peaceful life, eh? This is what Theresa May thinks of her electorate.
The art of persuasion is a tricky one. Use rhetorical devices well, and you can sway the cynics to your way of thinking. Use them clumsily and they will backfire. In the right hands, they can wield an almost hypnotic power; but when used by amateurs or wannabes, like double-glazing salespeople or estate agents, they are more likely to be met with resistance. Overuse them like May, and the reaction tends to be meme-worthy.
Repetition is a good tactic on paper. Boil a complex message down into a snappy catchphrase, say it often enough and it might become part of the common consciousness. If enough people think it, it may be perceived as true. Keep repeating it and it becomes a chorus for your point of view. Soon the masses will be singing along, repeating your message themselves; you can harness the best marketing tool of all, word of mouth, and your idea can go viral. That’s the plan.
Really effective repetition takes you on a journey, with the meaning shifting each time a word or phrase is used. This takes skill, my friends. One of the best examples of this is in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when Mark Antony uses one speech to gradually turn the mob against Brutus with the repetition of the phrase “Brutus is an honourable man.” Each time it’s used, the mob is meant to respond to it slightly differently, until he carries them through to his final message. They agree at first, then doubts start to creep in, then you can practically hear the phrase being voiced in italics, or with air quotes - and then they are baying for Brutus’s blood. It’s a beautiful example of a speaker manipulating his audience without underestimating their intelligence. He persuades them in the best way possible - by making them think it was their idea.
All too often, repetition is used as a brute-force oratorical weapon, and that’s when it goes horribly wrong. Theresa May parrots the catchphrases incessantly, like a broken record, or a 4-second Vine on loop and at full volume. She’s taking us on a journey - but not one that she intends. With each repetition, she’s making us more impatient. She’s the kid in the backseat asking ‘Are we there yet?’ every 5 minutes, and each time the parents say ‘No’ they are getting louder and more irritated, dangerously close to losing their temper. She is not carrying her audience with her - her use of repetition is alienating, infuriating and immature.
Is it a failure as an orator, or an underestimation of the audience? The answer’s probably both. Repeating something doesn’t actually make it true, no matter how many times you do it. After a while, it undermines your message. It makes May look like she has nothing more to say. It makes her seem like an automaton, incapable of original thought. It makes her message seem desperate. With every repetition, the words lose their meaning. If she were repeating something concrete, repetition might reinforce the message, but her words are abstract, and each iteration makes that more painfully clear. In a matter of days, her primary idea has become devoid of meaning. It is ‘Brexit means Brexit’ all over again, in terms of clarity and precision. Her words have become background noise. She might be aiming for Mark Antony’s oratorical genius, but the effect she’s creating is political tinnitus.
The timing’s important too. Repetition in political discourse is nothing new, and it is rarely used sparingly (and therefore well), but we normally get a few years’ break from it. When these tactics are repeated on an annual basis (the Scottish independence referendum, the last general election, EU referendum, general election again), the old slogans are still fresh in our memory. As a result, the tactics themselves are more obviously recognisable, and recognisably obvious. She’s dealing with a much more politically cynical audience, and she has failed to adjust her style accordingly. When the immediate response to (yet another) repetition of the same phrase is a howling wail of ‘ENOUGH’ rather than a thoughtful nod, you’ve clearly missed the mark.
Relying purely on this tactic is deeply patronising. The Handmaid’s Tale is barely out of my mind these days, and one of the lines from the novel is resonant here - “Our biggest mistake was teaching them to read”. The Commander is talking about women, but we can apply this to May’s contempt for the electorate. Wouldn’t her campaign be easier if voters took her at face value, rather than thinking for themselves? She’s a wannabe con artist, demanding that we look her in the eyes in a desperate attempt to distract us while rifling through our pockets. She is shoving her message down our throats, expecting us to swallow it without chewing it over, then looking surprised when we choke.
The final problem with repetition is that is usually gets its revenge in the end. Let’s not forget that the most recent political coalition included May’s own party as the dominant partner. Was this a “coalition of chaos”? What if the Tories need to form a coalition after this election? The press will crucify her, using her own words as a headline. If May does manage to win this election, you can bet the farm that the second she does anything that could remotely be construed as weak, indecisive or ‘unstable’, her catchphrase will be repeated with glee by her opposition. She has inadvertently created a slogan for her enemies to use against her when she fails, not a triumphant chorus for victory.
When the ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park’ sign falls in the atrium at the end of the film, amidst blood and chaos, it is a fitting symbol for the consequences of hubris, and an image that May should learn from. Using repetition to position herself incessantly as the only person who is “strong and stable” enough to lead will almost certainly come back to haunt May in the end.
If you want to see my parody of Mark Antony’s speech, ‘POTUS in an honourable man’, click here.