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It's only a metaphor

By Philip Lillingston - posted Friday, 28 February 2020

The nature of modern discourse is that we often sprinkle our informal communication with figures of speech, such as similes, hyperboles and metaphors, in the hope we may enhance the point we are attempting to make. The butcher does not merely charge a high price for his filet steaks, he commits highway robbery. After unexpectedly running out of fuel, I had to walk a million miles to the next servo. Jane did not just win the debate, she ate the lunch of her opponent, and she can't go out on Friday because she has babysitting duties in being a slave to her two younger, demanding, brothers.

Unfortunately however, some politicians and commentators, either disingenuously or with considerably lack of thought, are prepared to treat the metaphorical as the literal if it provides them with a spear to hurl at their opponents. As much as this does not make them guilty of attempted murder, their wrong is that they lower the standard of rational public debate accompanying election campaigns.

In the current American primary election season there are not one, but three billionaires running for office. An obvious virtue extreme wealth gives them is their complete independence in choice of policy, free from the normal big organisation donors who expect favours in return. Despite that however, the most common response to a billionaire entering the field is the criticism that their wealth allows them a significantly higher advertising budget and thus the power to "buy" the election.


Senator Bernie Sanders told a crowd in Carson City that Americans were "sick and tired of billionaires buying elections." Similarly fellow senator Elizabeth Warren claimed, "I don't believe that elections ought to be for sale," while Emily Compagno of Fox News, declared Michael Bloomberg is "literally trying to buy the presidency". [emphasis added]

Tucker Carlson, in his bully pulpit, primetime position on Fox News, has apparently so convinced himself an actual electoral purchase is involved he has declared,
"…Bloomberg doesn't think any [policy or platform] matters. He's not running on ideas. He's not trying to convince voters of anything. He's not making arguments or working to change their minds on policies they care about. He is trying to buy them and hence, the presidency …"

Like the traditional venal voter willing to sell his vote to the highest bidder, Carlson seems to believe the voting public is hardly interested in what the candidate stands for, but only that the proverbial sawbuck should land in his hand.

I'll have 25 primaries and a general election please. Do you take Amex?

If all of these politicians and opinion-meisters were cornered by microphones and cameras and forced to parse their comments, they most probably would begrudgingly admit their metaphors. How could they not, when challenged with the follow questions? If a primary (or indeed presidential) election was bought, who then was the seller? If it is immoral to buy an election, then is not the seller also immoral?

So, as we know there is no actual money going from the pockets of billionaires to voters, why all the fuss over this loose, undisciplined use of our language?

The reason is that metaphorical speech doesn't always exaggerate a minor crime into a major one, but in many circumstances derives a major crime from no sin at all, such as the above- mentioned high priced butcher, or the babysitter.


If you don't like billionaires and don't like that they can afford to do things that you can't, then the temptation is to malign them with metaphorical sins if the literal sins are exceedingly hard to identify and categorise.

Michael Bloomberg hires political staff of the highest quality and by the thousands. He then floods the airwaves and social media with wall to wall, 24/7, promotions and advertising. Many feel that this action just must be unethical.

However, on the practical side, despite all the fear mongering, history does not show that excessive wealth guarantees election victory. Yes, the candidate who advertises has a much better chance of success over the one who doesn't. But are we to believe the voting public are so truly impressionable that all they have to do is see a candidate's ad more times than his opponent to make them brainwashed, and blindly vote for that person?

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About the Author

Philip Lillingston, has previously taught political science and now maintains the website Why Not Proportional Representation?

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Philip Lillingston

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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