The congressional elections just concluded, including Beto O’Rourke’s nationally featured race against Ted Cruz, showed that our political discourse shapes what we think about government and politics.
Results and upsets of incumbents everywhere showed similar results across the nation. Working Americans and people of all stripes are turned off by course and dishonest political language. It turns off our kids. It turns off our alliances and the world. Unfortunately, the rest of the world is learning the strategy—British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn just called Prime Minister Theresa May “a stupid woman.”
At the National Press Club, we asked outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan, “Mr. Speaker, you have been in a very big box with the politics of condemnation coming from the White House. You have spoken against it periodically. Do you think that’s here to stay? Is it a model that is going to stay with us? You have driven for policy arguments, not personal condemnations. What can we do about it to make it not happen?” Speaker Ryan responded, “Yeah, good question. I think about this a lot …the hysteria …it divides our country.”
George Orwell published his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” in 1946 to widespread acclaim. Orwell famously decried “doublespeak” in the novel “1984”. In his “Politics” essay he wrote, “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” For Orwell, true meaning is diminished by frilly language, allowing politicians to say one thing (like “proletariat”) and mean something different. Orwell thought the solution was for politicians to speak more clearly.
The problem with our political discourse, though, is more complicated. A recent article in “Politico” by Lane Greene of “The Economist” points out that “despite what Orwell might have hoped, this plain speech did nothing to stop Trump. It may indeed have been his biggest weapon. If he lied, voters either didn’t know, or they gave him a pass.”
Trump is not alone in this. Phrases like “fake news” and “abolish ICE” come to the vocal cords before thought, providing convenient catch phrases for politicians. Voters don’t have to consider such blunt phrases, and so they open themselves up to manipulative leaders when they use them.
So now we, as a country, find ourselves largely unable to trust the language that forms the communication between candidate and voter. We find ourselves unable to trust blunt language, and equally unable to trust the excessive, frilly language that Orwell warned about. In this day and age language is debased, leaving less and less room for real argument. Politicians increasingly use our language to distract us instead of to clarify.
How can we engage in politics if our language no longer leads to truth? How can we give political language meaning again? The answer to both questions is the same. We must reward people who use language honestly, and not just people who perfectly support our policies. We must elect those individuals who are not merely brilliant, but honest; not merely political, but human.
Honest speech is difficult to define, but easy to spot.
Language, when used with integrity, is empathetic. It makes an effort to examine the nuance of an argument instead of boiling it down to poll-tested soundbites. It doesn’t set out to undermine facts, it uses them to build an argument. In contrast to blunt phrases like accusations of “amnesty for illegals” and “Fake News” which sound good but mean little, honest speech tells the story by specific example. Then voters can divide fact from fiction.
The best way to see whether or not a candidate is using language in good faith is to listen to them speak about a divisive issue, and then ask yourself if they really addressed the issue. The best, most recent example of this sort of speech is Beto O’Rourke’s answer to a question about kneeling athletes. Instead of ducking the question or just calling the athletes names, he addressed the full complexity of the issue and gave a genuine argument in response. The depth of his answer makes it difficult to quote, but in part he said that “ I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, anytime, anywhere, anyplace.”
O’Rourke used language honestly in his answer, not as a diversion but as a mechanism to reveal the truth. This is exactly the kind of speech that we need if we want to restore our ability to talk to each other about politics.
George Orwell was right when he said that decadent language is dangerous. Greene was right to say that blunt language is a diversion. The only way to reclaim political language is to elect people who will not abuse language. This means electing politicians who answer the tough questions in good faith, and not merely politicians who tell us what we want to hear.
Robert Weiner was a Clinton and Bush White House spokesman, and spokesman for the House Government Operations Committee and House Narcotics and Judiciary Committees. Jared Schwartz is justice policy analyst for Robert Weiner Associates and Solutions for Change. Ben Lasky is senior policy analyst at Solutions for Change.