“Poli-speak”

Learning the language of politics
Joseph Daniel Fiedler ILLUSTRATION

Political campaigns provide excellent fodder for language lovers, and the present one hasn’t disappointed.

If there’s a term that adequately captures the silliness, subterfuge and blatant deception that both sides use to snare votes, I don’t know it, so I’ve devised my own – “poli-speak.”

Poli-speak includes a family of deceptive practices that politicians employ to trawl for votes. Poli-speak includes poli-grammar, intended and unintended use of words that deliver misleading messages; poli-pretzel, comments taken out of context by the opposition to contort an intended message; and poli-dress, a non-verbal untruth sent by candidates via clothing choices.

Poli-speak is a cousin to parrot-speak. In general, getting too specific on the issues can turn off voters, and it’s  a dangerous territory, so political candidates often turn to repetitive slogans that sound like something we can hang our hats on. Yet, if we spend more than five seconds actually thinking about them, the phrases crumble in our brains like pecked out seed hulls.

“Change we can believe in.” Remember that one from President Obama’s 2008 campaign? I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count how many times national and local politicians have promised big policy changes. The fact of the matter is the separation of powers structure of government in this country is set up to prevent abrupt change and it works as intended. Climate change has moved faster than the federal government of late.

“Take our country back” – Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan embraced this Tea Party rallying cry in August in a speech in Virginia.

I’m not the first to ask, back from where? As far as I know I’m still standing on USA’s terra firma. This one sends a truly weird vibe because it implies that the country has been kidnapped by Darth Vader and his robotic army. We might not all agree with each other, but neither side, Democrat or Republican, represents the Evil One.

Political slogans like these are commonly referred to as “glittering generalities,” a technique used by advertisers and other propagandists to deliver ambiguous but positive sounding messages. They can range from vague words to open-ended phrases that allow readers or listeners to fill in the blanks with their own perceptions.

A mild version of poli-speak occurred in New Orleans in July when President Obama addressed the National Urban League conference and touted education initiatives he has put in place. Many news outlets filmed or reported him using the South’s own beloved “y’all” to address college-age voters. The New York Times quoted him saying, “Of course that means all of y’all got to hit the books. Don’t cheer and then don’t do your homework.” Leaving aside the awkward redundancy of “all of y’all,” the president’s usage of Southern colloquialisms seems a premeditated attempt to relate to his audience. Somehow I can’t visualize the president addressing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Marine Corp General John R. Allen as “y’all,” but then maybe he picked it up from his Chicago-bred and Harvard-educated wife, who claims ancestral roots in South Carolina.

Of course, Obama’s use of this handy contraction was charming compared to Vice President Joe Biden’s use of it in Virginia. CNN and other news outlets reported that he criticized Republican nominee Mitt Romney for wanting to “unchain Wall Street,” a reference to Wall Street regulations. He is reported as saying that Romney would put “y’all back in chains.” He probably regrets that poor choice of words considering the racial overtones created by the combination of Southern phrasing, and the reference to chains in the heavily black populated town of Danville, Va.

On the other side, it’s amusing to watch Romney’s operatives dance an evasive jig around the question of whether he supports Ryan’s budget-reducing Medicare proposal. His proposal to create a Medicare voucher system that would allow seniors to purchase health insurance on the open market could frighten older voters in swing states.

Poli-grammar really gave the president a headache over the summer when he misused the word “that” to refer to a complex point about how government policies and spending help small business owners. His now infamous quote, “You didn’t build that,” referred to the roads and bridges that government provides to business owners and individuals for transporting goods and getting to work, but the way he worded the sentence left the impression he was telling business owners that they are not responsible for their own success.

No one could honestly believe that a man running for president would intentionally offend business owners, but Romney’s side took offense nonetheless. Pronoun reference errors are made by the general populace on a daily basis, but in non-political discourse people manage to figure out the context and move on without so much drama.

Poli-pretzel, poli-grammar’s sibling, is a comment taken out of context by the opposition to smear the rival and make him look like feces to the general public. The slamming of the president over a petty grammar error was similar to the beating Romney took for these unfortunate words: “I like being able to fire people.” He said these words during the Republican nominating phase, and in this case it was fellow Republican Rick Perry who used them to paint Romney as a hard-hearted businessman who cares nothing for the hardships of other people. The words came across as plausibility self-revealing because there was a good deal of firing and hiring activity during the time that he was CEO of Bain Capital, an investment group. Taken in context, however, Romney was referring to consumers’ ability to change insurance carriers if they’re not getting good service from them.

I won’t take up for Romney when it comes to his use of poli-dress, though. He was photographed in Dubuque, Iowa, wearing faded, baggy jeans that looked like cast-offs from a thrift store. Did he really think that the blue-collar workers he addressed were fooled by the overused apparel? With a net worth that’s reportedly between $85 and $500 million, depending on the source, it’s highly unlikely that those threads came from the same closets that house all those perfectly tailored dark suits.

At the end of the day, voters have a tough road in trying to determine who’s truly behind the curtains of political language. But is all this manipulation the candidates’ fault? Political candidates play to voters’ own projections, prejudices and magical thinking, so maybe we don’t have anyone to blame but ourselves.

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