Political language 2019: simpler but no less devious

Political speech – simpler, but no less devious

Definitions of “politician”:

An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared.

Ambrose Bierce

(One who) divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies.  That means he knows only one class: enemies.

Friedrich Nietzsche

[Someone] who identifies the sound of his own voice with the infallible voice of the public.

Joseph K. Howard

A set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people and who…are, taken as a mass, at least one step removed from honest men.

Abraham Lincoln

Political language represents in part an effort by politicians to talk in ways that will get voters to like them more – and that means talking more like the voters.

Lisa Mascaro, Tribune Washington Bureau, writes that “What has become clear is that soaring oratory that once filled the House and Senate with million-dollar diction and sophisticated syntax is making way for a more modest approach.”   No more (or at least fewer) blowhard politicians who try to snow you with sententious pronouncements, long and winding sentences, and quotes from historical figures that almost nobody has ever heard of.

Language is getting simpler.

That continues a process that’s been going on for a long time.  In The Philosophy of Composition,     E.D. Hirsch showed that English prose had been getting simpler for quite a long time.

You could show this quantitatively, by counting words per sentence…or syllables per word…or the ratio of lexical (= dictionary) words to grammar-signaling words (the, to, has been) – or you could just try slogging your way through a novel from the 18th– or 19th-century, when readers had no electricity and LONG attention spans.

In addition, many of the literate elite had been trained in the classics, which included rhetoric and oratory, and the result was a public-speaking style that for a long time sounded Presidential, as if a monarch could use this kind of language, but his subjects could not…but now it sounds ridiculous.

Imperial BS

John F. Kennedy’s 1963 inaugural speech, once praised for the very kind of rhetorical art practiced by leaders everywhere, is the voice of the Big Cheese making proclamations like a Biblical priest or Roman Emperor.  But times and opinions change.  Today it sounds pompous and imperious – qualities we don’t want in a President.

This speech, with its famous Ask not… line, typified the archaic syntax of traditional oratory.  It has often enough been torn apart by people more skilled than I, so I won’t even bother to quote it.

OK, sorry, can’t resist.  Here’s a clip:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Notice the imperial “Let” and “we” (see [1] below).  With minimal effort you could translate that into conversational English: start with “We want every nation to know…”.  The speech sounded inspirational at the time, but here’s a translation of what it turned out to mean:

Translation (updated with “terrorists”; in JFK’s time, the USSR and communism were our major boogeymen)

“Any regime we think opposes terrorism we will befriend and support, no matter how corrupt the dictator, now matter how he abuses his people.

“We will maintain 800 military bases around the world, to protect ourselves from terrorists, lest we have to fight them on our soil.  We will bomb and drone to our heart’s content, never mind how many civilians we kill and how much hatred (and terrorism) we generate in the process.

“We will spill our blood and treasure without limit, because, you see, my fellow Americans, that’s what I mean by ‘Pay any price, bear any burden.’  It means America is tough (= insecure about its manhood), trigger-happy, and insane.

Watch out – we’re crazy

“Better believe it: we’ll do anything.  We’re impulsive and quick to resort to military solutions, we never pull back, and the result is that, as always, young people will put their lives on the line for the power dreams of politicians.  We will call this ‘defending freedom.’

“Also, if a country has oil, we will ignore its religious atrocities and monarchical rule — so we’re a little flexible on the success-of-liberty thing.  We will cloak our liberty-loving wars by demonizing foreign leaders and frightening the American people as necessary.”

That’s the trouble with expansive lines like “Bear any burden.”  It’s open-ended.  It can mean a lot of unnecessary bloodshed.

Speech diction

The point is, nobody talks or writes in such classically influenced “speech diction” any more.  The Constitution’s Tenth Amendment, written in the 18th century, is a perfectly-balanced, three-level parallel structure, such as you would not find even if you examined a million words of text; people just don’t write like that today.  The research in Mascaro’s article indicates that Congressional discourse is at the 8th-grade level.


But eighth-grade (and presumably descending)?  After all the trillions the government has thrown at education?  Shouldn’t voters be as smart as Asian and European kids, so that the politicians can speak…oh, I don’t know, 12th-grade English, whatever that is, just as a mid-point or baseline for adult public discourse?  What’s next?  Can you speak like a 5th-grader?

I never know how they arrive at the grade-level evaluation.  There are thousands of eighth-grade classes, some reading at 5th-grade level, some doing work of high school maturity.  For sure, they do not use complex sentences and multisyllabic Latin- and Greek-derived vocabulary.

So whatever grade-level you pick, politicians are talking more simply.  That’s the good news.

The bad news

The bad news comes in two parts.

First, they are so eager to win the hearts and minds of young voters that they go overboard.  In “Whassup Citizens!”   Ben Zimmer writes:

“When politicians themselves take to Twitter, the combination of breezy familiarity – compounded at times by senior citizenry amidst a young crowd  — can lead to decidedly bizarre results. . . Self –awareness is a key virtue in the new terrain of political communication, and a healthy dose of it can ensure that aging politicians don’t appear ridiculous donning youthful digital fashions.”

Equally harmful to reasoned discourse is Twitter’s limits on length: there’s no way to develop ideas or adduce supporting evidence, no room for anything but slogans and accusations, which is just fine for politicians too lazy to think about what they’re broadcasting.

Deceit and manipulation

The second part of the bad news is that while political speech may be syntactically and lexically simpler than before, politicians continue the deceptive, manipulative use of language.  Three things I find particularly irksome:

(1) The government “we.” “We” conventionally means ‘you and I’ or ‘I and somebody else.’  The government “we” means ‘the government, acting as society’s self-appointed agent, with your money.’  It’s a fake “we.”  It may totally exclude the listener – probably does.  So “we” = ‘the government.’  But it does sort of make you feel included, doesn’t it?  When a politician says “we” must do something, hold on to your wallet.

(2) Vague and unconventional, often euphemistic word usage.  A prime example is the word “cut” used to mean ‘increases in expenditures that are less than planned.’  Whenever you hear “cut,” “gut,” “slash,” or similar verbs, reserve judgment till you have numbers.

Class names are also vague and manipulative.  Take “working people.” Is that code for menial, manual, blue-collar work?  How can I not be included among working people?  I worked for a living, as did everyone else in the corporate HQ.  We wore corporate casual, not hard hats.  We were working people too.

How about “the rich,” the favorite whipping-boy of egalitarian-minded politicians?  The number behind that one is constantly changing; every bureau defines it differently, most of them impossibly low — $50,000 by one estimate I saw.

All political language is littered with vagueness, lest politicians be held responsible for specifics.  All numbers have been massaged, with negative or conflicting data ignored.  “Be afraid,” as Geena Davis first said in that classic line from The Fly.  “Be very afraid.”

Orwell and after

George Orwell’s pioneering work on government euphemism, and countless books and articles on the subject, have amply demonstrated that politicians play fast and loose with the meanings of words.  One person’s “terrorist” is another’s “freedom fighter.”

Biggest fogball of all: ‘The American people.”  Gimme a break. We are as disunited a people as there is on the face of the earth, avoiding civil war only because of our commitment to law and the Constitution, a commitment that is lacking in much of the world, where people are massacring each other, with one party, tribe, or sect killing off the opposition instead of voting it out of office.

We’re supposed to be united by a common language, but that’s not going well.  A recent letter from my health insurance company offered interpreters, and the offer was phrased  in over 20 languages.

“The American people” want the government to do a hundred different, things, none of which it can afford without plunging further into debt.  For a truly scary Internet experience, visit the National Debt Clock web site.

What “the American people” want

No politician can claim to be about, much less promote, “the business of the American people.”  No politician can claim to know what “the American People” want.  About the only thing the American people have in common is that they want and deserve better leaders.

(3) Government to the rescue.  The basic rhetorical structure of political discourse is founded on the desideratum of government doing something and magically making things better.  So gridlock is bad; partisanship is bad.

In reality, “bipartisanship” means that government is picking our pockets with both hands.  “Let’s put aside the bickering,” the politicians say, “and get about the business of the American people.”

Let’s not and say we did.

Among the few items of “business” that politicians must get together on are paying down (and not increasing!) the debt, reducing our obscene levels of expenditure on the military, keeping entitlements from going bankrupt, and controlling government spending , even if these actions result in their not getting re-elected.

That takes courage that none of them have. Will Rogers, a humorist from the last century (no one quotes him any more), said we shouldn’t pass any more laws.  We have all the ones we need.  Let’s just enforce those and be done with it.

That was 85 years ago.  It’s much worse today: a clique of career politicians (re-election rate in Congress was higher than in the Soviet parliament) busy passing thousand-page bills that nobody reads but that favor this group or that, whoever gave enough to the campaign.

Job creation

(4) “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” the office-seeker brays incessantly. I rarely hear a political pronouncement that didn’t mention the great good of creating jobs.

Consider: The people who want to create jobs…don’t want the jobs they’re trying to create.

Who the hell wants a job, unless it’s the 5% who get to be well-paid and really enjoy their work?  Economists with cushy jobs calculating job growth don’t have to work the way most people do, chained to their assembly lines and punching a clock…or trapped in their cubicles, underutilized, bored, downloading porn or frequenting dating sites.

As Mark Nicholas says flat-out in his book ’I Come First’: How the Individual Ego Drives Business Decisions, “most jobs stink [repetitive and degrading — AMP]), and most bosses stink [dictatorial — AMP]. “

The primacy of face time

How come Europeans get six weeks of vacation a year, while Americans are afraid to take earned vacation time, lest they be perceived to be disloyal team players?  And the irony of all this is that bosses want what teachers wanted in grade-school: attendance.

They want your body in that cubicle early in the morning and late in the evening, even though technology makes it unnecessary (and chains you to the job 24/7), even though you’re underutilized, flooded with meaningless busy-work, and micro-managed, which is part of the reason you’re underutilized.

Who wants a job, really?

You can’t do what little they’d have you do if you don’t do it exactly the way the boss wants.  It’s that way in Dilbert and in workplaces all across this great land.  The people who want to create jobs have nice, cushy jobs, with lots of interesting things happening, lots of money and perks.  Who wouldn’t want a job?

Well, what happened to our future of abundant leisure time?

The ultimate irony could not be better expressed than by Dave Maleckar’s 100-word rant (Funny Times, Jan. 2012):

“Wait. Wasn’t the 20th century supposed to be all about creating technology to release people from the need for ceaseless backbreaking [and spirit-crushing – AMP] toil so they could enjoy the best things in life?  And the best things in life are free, right? [Yes – health, free time, family time, just doing nothing – AMP].  So 10% unemployment should mean 100% of us happily working a 36-hour week.  Unless they were lying to us about the 20th century.  They wouldn’t do that, would they, the folks with the money and power?  Cause if they would, it’s like we’ve gone to the movies and left the kids with a convicted cannibal pedophile.”

Working harder than ever

Well, the evidence is there: we’re working harder than ever, partly because we’re taxed half to death to fulfill the politicians’ promises.  So please, gentle reader, look askance at all the blathering about creating jobs.  It’s another way to keep the worker bees buzzing so that they don’t have a chance to catch their breath and know they’re being screwed, worked to exhaustion and beyond, to provide wealth which the financial classes then hedge and invest in imaginary securities.

So yes, it‘s good that the politicians are talking more simply (though they laws they write are impossibly obscure).  But they continue to use language in deceitful, manipulative ways.  And the American people (another generalization, this one born of my experience) never stop falling for it.