Oath rhetoric, political identity, and the case of Jon Huntsman.

Author:Crosby, Richard Benjamin

It is no great surprise among conservatives that Jon Huntsman was unable to crack double digits in any national poll during the 2011-2012 Republican primaries. Before he dropped out in January 2012, he was well known as the "moderate" in the race (Zeleny, par. 4). Some conservative bloggers went so far as to call him a "liberal" for his willingness to serve as ambassador under President Obama and his acknowledgment of the science behind climate change (e.g. Kaplan, par. 1; see also Condon). Indeed, Huntsman's name was on the short list for potential third-party candidates being considered by the independent group Americans Elect (e.g., Meyerson). How Huntsman came to be labeled so problematically is a complicated question. As any consideration of his record and policy positions will reveal, Huntsman was, in practice, a very serious and committed conservative. His record brimmed with Republican staples, including strict pro-life values and legislation, free-market-driven economics, and an air-tight alliance with the NRA (e.g., Scarborough). Why, therefore, was Huntsman treated as an apostate?

Perhaps it was simply a matter of rhetorical style. Seth Mandel argues that Huntsman's transparent efforts to ingratiate himself with the "cool" crowd turned off conservatives (par. 6). Huntsman repeatedly tried to distance himself from the core constituencies within conservatism, often tweeting sardonic comments about how backwards his opponents were, or showing off his international experience during debates (e.g., Williamson qtd. in Mandel; "Huntsman Speaks"). However, it was Huntsman's refusal to sign pledges that suggests his most dramatic break with rhetorical orthodoxy. National elections from 2010 to 2012 saw a profusion of conservative pledges, all being circulated to Republican candidates as a way of binding them to certain ideological positions on a range of issues, including taxes, "gay marriage," and abortion. Every other viable candidate signed all or most of the pledges, but Jon Huntsman refused to sign any. Drawing on Huntsman as a case, and his refusal to sign one pledge in particular, the Pro-Life Leadership Presidential Pledge (hereafter the PLPP), this essay considers the uniquely powerful rhetoric of oaths to construct relationships of inclusion and exclusion such that the contingencies of policy making are displaced by the demands of ideological membership. I conclude that, rather than to address the material exigencies of policy, oath rhetoric functions to obscure individual identity, consolidate cultural allegiance, and redraw the boundaries of public debate. These functions suggest hegemonic impulses that go well beyond the isolated interests of certain policies.

I should acknowledge up front that I do not argue Huntsman's refusal to sign pledges is solely or even primarily to blame for his poor showing. Though his refusal was certainly a key element in a failed rhetorical strategy, I am primarily interested in its heuristic value. The interchange between Huntsman and the Susan B. Anthony List, the organization that sponsored the PLPP, is illustrative of the way oath rhetoric creates intractable divisions in identity, even though such divisions are belied by evidence that the two parties share the same practical concerns. Off-the-cuff comments in a debate, interview, or tweet can be excused as gaffes or atonalities. When one declines an oath, or pledge, one permanently reinforces her or his own alienation from a particular group. The difference becomes not merely one of style; it becomes a difference of values, and, as I intend to show, ideological membership.

The essay proceeds in three sections. First, I provide an overview of the definitions and premises of oaths, with particular focus on the use of oaths in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Second, I perform a textual analysis of a representative artifact (the PLPP), focusing primarily on the way it works to cut off debate and excommunicate those who would engage in debate. Finally, with reference to the ideas of Kenneth Burke and Debra Hawhee (respectively, identification and agonism), I discuss some of the theoretical and political implications of oath rhetoric more broadly.


During the 2011-2012 election cycle, Republicans were expected to sign no fewer than four oath-like documents, each one representing another cause in the constellation of conservative special interests. There was a pledge not to raise taxes under any circumstances ("Taxpayer Protection"); a vow to defend the sanctity of heterosexual marriage ("Marriage Vow"); a pledge to "cut, cap, and balance" the federal budget ("Cut, Cap, and Balance"); and a pledge to pursue a strict pro-life agenda ("Pro-Life"). In considering such documents, I employ the umbrella term oaths, because, as I will argue below, vows, pledges, and other highly formal or sacred promises have increasingly assumed the meaning historically assigned to oaths. It may be tempting to dismiss these documents as arbitrary exercises of self-importance on the part of the sponsors. After all, the documents hold no legal power; they are not materially binding, and they may not have large audiences. Nevertheless, in this section, I demonstrate that the power of oath rhetoric lies not in its legal or material enforceability but in the way it constructs ideological communities.

In pursuing this claim, I settle on a discussion of English loyalty oaths that were deployed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There are a number of historical uses of oaths that might serve as useful examples for this discussion, and the United States has its own rich and complicated history with oaths (e.g., Heins), but the English loyalty oaths are especially illuminating for a couple of reasons. First, they are already acknowledged as rhetorical artifacts. Historians have made arguments about the rhetorical functions of English loyalty oaths that will be useful to scholars of discourse, and, more specifically, relevant to the claims I am pursuing in this essay. Second, the English loyalty oaths provide a clear example of why oath rhetoric can be effective even if its injunctions are not legally enforced, a critical claim I make with respect to the political oaths in the present-day United States. Referring to the so called "Jacobian Oath of Allegiance," for instance, M.C. Questier argues that the power of English anti-Catholic oaths was not to be found in their legal threats but in the way they undermined Catholic identity. Such an oath blurs loyalties, marking "the oath's rhetoric as a particularly effective act of authority" (328). So whether it is legally enforced or not, an oath has the power to create important identifications between those who join in the oath, and these identifications are useful in the building of ideological boundaries.

Before I pursue a discussion of English loyalty oaths in greater detail, however, a few basic definitions are in order. An oath represents a compact by which persons bind themselves to each other and/or a cause under the aegis of some higher authority. The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia defines "oath" as a "vocal affirmation of the truth of one's statements, generally made by appealing to a deity.... The force of the oath depends on the belief that supernatural powers will punish falsehood spoken under oath or the violation of a promise" ("Oath," Columbia). The Oxford English Dictionary's definition is similar: "A solemn or formal declaration invoking God (or a god, or other object of reverence) as witness to the truth of a statement, or to the binding nature of a promise or undertaking" ("Oath," Oxford). Margaret J. M. Sonmez is perhaps the most succinct: "expressions in which something is ratified or promised with reference to something else, usually something sacred" (155).

This notion of ratification is essential because it functions to bind parties to each other regardless of existing or future contingencies. Indeed, the only contingency that may nullify an oath is the actual breaking of the oath by one of the parties. While this fact is implied in most definitions of the term, examples of oaths in practice represent it more clearly. Oaths are rarely if ever dissolved by mutual agreement based on changing contingencies. More typically, they are dissolved by a single party who is then perceived as treacherous. Thucydides, for instance, remarks that oaths, while binding, may only hold good "so long as no other weapon was at hand" to serve the cause of "perfidious vengeance" (3.82). Commenting on the indiscriminate nature of the oath agreement, Herodotus cites an oracular warning on the taking of oaths, which reads: "But the child of oath is a nameless force, with no hands/And no feet, yet swiftly pursues and destroys with its grasp/All his kin, his whole house will afterward perish" (6.86).

Oaths, therefore, have goals and audiences; as such, they qualify as rhetorical discourse, but they do not constitute traditional arguments-if by traditional arguments we mean something which includes claims, data, warrants, backing, and rebuttals. Oaths circumvent standard logos-oriented routes in an effort to hail audiences into a new, covenant-based relationship which has a binding force of considerable magnitude. The agreement between the participants is itself the primary concern, not so much the content that is promised. Thus, one is legitimized by her or his very situatedness within the covenant itself.

These preliminary definitions imply the presence of at least two components to an oath: a binding agentive promise and an invocation of some sort of deity or "object of reverence," which, in effect, notarizes the promise. However, as the western world has made more allowances for nonreligious testators, institutions that administer oaths have often rendered the invocation of deity to be optional. Both the Columbia Electronic...

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