Voices and Voting

A non-partisan note on presidential nominations and elections. Am I the only one who evaluates candidates in part on the sound of their voice? Not an expert of all the current voices, I do know the big three or four (Trump, Sanders, Cruz, and Clinton in reverse alphabetical order).

Walter Ong, a Jesuit writer, stresses that, while sight shows us an object’s exterior, hearing reveals its interior: hollow or solid. This aspect of interiority is one reason the voice means so much to me. Of course, I mean more than the vocal cords. They cannot be changed. But each of us can change our voice, depending on our disposition, our goals, our beliefs, and our intentions.

What I listen for is a human being. That of course requires whatever pitch and cadence (along with propositional content) that conveys authenticity and spontaneity. Behind those virtues lies rationality, which keeps Ralph Nader far in the lead, long after his direct involvement has ceased. 

No doubt, this test—along with a lot of political banter—is subjective. One could add other attributes if one subscribed to this “I’d like to elect a human being, not an ideological figurehead constrained by established shackles” test.

Me? I add good manners. Not that anger and brash assertion are never warranted but that any fallible human (that’s the lot of us) should temper his or her confidence with respect for others, knowing that we all err. In this respect, Trump—who is as spontaneous as he is considered to be rashly inconsistent—steps down several rungs.

Last night I heard a short statement and failed to recognize it was Bernie Sanders. He sounded so…so political, talking about goals instead of values, listing states instead of unfolding statements. My mis-recognition demonstrates a few things, perhaps. Most importantly, short sound clips are insufficient for evaluating a candidate.  A short clip can damn someone, but only an extended talk can earn our respect (or temper our dislike). It also showed that sleep matters. Give a voice some sleep deprivation, considerable stress, and 30 seconds to summarize itself, and you are sure to get something less than the person.

What of the other two? Having written the previous paragraphs, I knew I owed it to Cruz and Clinton to listen to more than a short clip. I admit that Clinton’s longer clip (on breaking down barriers) tempered my previous impressions. Not always shrill, chunks of her talk were spoken in a calm and controlled voice. The net effect was not unlike that of many graduation speeches: everything was carefully worded, albeit deeply embedded in the genre of a “speech,” which, by definition perhaps, voids one of spontaneity.

The Cruz speech given in Monroeville, Pennsylvania demonstrates at once that the younger vocal cords pay off, at least with the first sentence. There we have health. Soon we have a false etymology of “politics,” deliberately false, although a true etymology would have revealed something less common. My take on Cruz’s talk is that his voice neither illuminates his inside, nor distracts from the message…or not much. Perhaps its utility undermines the message. When he says, “we should abolish the IRS,” for example, the younger vocal cords betray his message by articulating with ease and simplicity such a significant statement. Whether the abolition of the IRS is a good or bad idea, it is not trivial and cannot be earnestly promoted effortlessly as another bullet point that doesn’t in the least perplex, burden, or give pause to the speaker. 

It is with the Cruz voice that this piece begins to blur the voice with the content. The two are inextricable, leading me to emphasize not “vocal cords” but “vocal chords”—the harmonics struck as the physical-mental-and-emotional speaking thing makes itself audible. Through all the signals and acoustic variables I—and many of us—are attempting to construct a human being that we somehow respect. The test may be fallible, but its an urge that’s hard to resist.