The language of politics

Politics is primarily a battle of ideologies. CNN’s Jon Avlon has even called it an “ideological bloodsport”. A politician’s “power”, or authority, is drawn from the office she or he is holding at any given time, and, of course, from the amount of people that the politician in question has persuaded to side with her or him. The job of politicians is to sell ideas, and what better way to do this than through, preferably, well composed messages presented by a smooth and easy understandable language?

Because language is a common tool, an everyday practice and experience for everybody; still, people often forget how powerful (and equally dangerous) it can be – especially in the mouth of politicians. Sadly, not all politicians are trained to come up with well founded policies and to stand by their parties’ principles. They are also adept at articulating those policies and principles in such a way that would persuade other people to believe the same. And the unfortunate part is that these linguistic techniques-turned-ideological tools are too subtle to be noticed by the general public.

Case in point: a recent article from The Economist describes the linguistic nuances that differentiate the Republicans from the Democrats, thus defining the dynamics of US politics. The article’s main thesis is that today, “Republicans use words more skilfully to win political battles”, by using shorter and more concrete terms. The piece then cited the following examples to support its claim:

When arguing about abortion, Republicans favour “life” (evocative) while Democrats talk about “choice” (abstract). Republicans talk about “taxes” and “spending” while Democrats want to raise “revenue” for “investment”. George W. Bush had the “Patriot Act”, whereas Mr. Obama has a “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”. The former is an awful law that is hard to oppose; the latter an awful mouthful that is hard to remember.

Another defining feature of political language, the article points out, is its penchant for euphemism (e.g. using “collateral damage” to mean “killing people accidentally”). As pointed out earlier, what’s alarming is that the electorate often do not notice these things. Unless you’re a linguist or a communications expert, chances are that such political jargon will only sound like empty buzzwords devoid of significance. But the truth is that these words and statements do matter. They actually mean something – and most will be surprised to know that the meanings are significantly different from what they sound. The worst part is that this sort of political language is often being used to brainwash and persuade people at the guise of “feeding them information”. As the George Orwell quote goes, “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

Knut Harald Nylaende runs Moxie AS, an investment firm in Norway. He has been working as a financial and business professional for more than 20 years, and is now a respected name in the field of investments. He runs several blogs, and writes regularly about business, politics, culture, and technology.