The Language of Politcs

by Hemant Joshi | 10/13/00 5:00am

The greatest threat to American politics is neither the scarcity of worthy and electable candidates nor the frightening escalation of the politics of personal destruction. What is most dangerous to politics today is the lack of clear and direct communication between candidates and the American people. This deficiency in political interaction has especially negative consequences for the presidential race, as Americans must choose not just their political leader, but also their icon and representative to the rest of the world. The fact that both major presidential candidates are having problems reaching most Americans is therefore a very troubling prospect. With voter turnout rates expected to be as low as usual, Al Gore and George W. Bush need to make serious changes in their efforts to reach Americans.

Language complexity remains the biggest barrier between the candidates and the public. As George Orwell explains in his essay "Politics and the English Language," people frequently use complicated language to disguise ideas and confuse audiences while conveying an impression of intelligence and superiority. For presidential candidates, then, complicated language is a godsend. Both Gore and Bush have used this political weapon to their advantage, explaining plans and ideas to make it seem like they are sharing details while actually spitting out incomprehensible numbers and obscure words. Gore was criticized for applying this kind of strategy during the first presidential debate. However, while Gore suffered from using many numbers and complex language, Bush suffered from not using enough language to explain his ideas, and many viewers came away learning little about Bush's plans other than what Gore had to say about them. Thus both candidates need to find a middle ground that incorporates simple language with simple numbers to effectively explain ideas. That is not to say that the candidates need to resort to American slang to attract voters. Saying "like" every other word or "yo" isn't going to help the contenders communicate with voters. But neither is saying things like this:

"The theories -- the ideas she expressed about equality of results within legislative bodies and with -- by outcome, by decisions made by legislative bodies, ideas related to proportional voting as a general remedy, not in particular cases where the circumstances make that a feasible idea..." (Gore, on ABC's Nightline).

All politicians have had their share of mangled speech, but saying something stupid is very benign compared to saying something that does not make sense. In the former case, the candidate is just confirming what we already know about politicians in general -- that they are not the quickest or brightest of Americans. But when politicians make confusing statements, it sends the message that they are either hiding something or they do not care if listeners understand. In either circumstance, a necessary connection between government and people is disrupted. Consequently, Dan Quayle's gaffes can be viewed as harmless comedic interludes in an otherwise serious and bewildering political landscape. Statements like Gore's above, on the other hand, are somber reminders of the politics of confusion and cannot be disregarded simply as politician's stupidity.

Simple speech is most easily formed by practicing something that is inherently not a part of American politics -- namely, truth-telling. Because candidates are so worried that the public will abhor a man who has a heart problem, for example, they are less than truthful when disclosing anything about it, and therefore use complicated language to explain it away. It seems fair to say that politicians will always feel that they can't disclose everything, and therefore complex political language will always have this source to feed off of. And it is also clear that our political system will always be stuck with politicians using confusing rhetoric.

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