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"Political Language Is Not a Separate Force"

Photo: John Pemble / CC2.0

To use a tired trope: What do we talk about when we talk about politics? And beyond that: How do we talk when we talk about politics? And still further beyond that: How does the way in which we talk about politics, and the substance of what we’re saying, influence political outcomes and realities?

Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the the Language of Politics?, the latest from The New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson, attempts answers to those questions. In a recent email interview with Julian Zelizer, Princeton University professor and New America fellow, Thompson spoke to some of his ideas on the language of politics, who is responsible for its demise (the media? Margaret Thatcher?), and how we might begin to make it better.

1. Why did you decide to write this book at this particular moment in political history?

After many years on the front line of journalism and broadcasting, I’d become convinced that something was going badly wrong in the relationship between politicians, the media and the public. That’s quite a widespread view. But whereas most observers tend to blame local factors—an opposing political party, say, or what they take to be sinister forces in the media—I believed I was seeing near identical trends in countries with utterly different political and media cultures, and often across the left/right divide.

I became convinced that changes in political language—what politicians say and how the media reports and interprets what they say—were at the heart of the problem. People often think that public language, or rhetoric, is a superficial and unimportant layer above the substance of policy and ideology. But for me, political ideas and the language with which we share them are inextricably entwined. And history suggests that when a political language begins to fail, democracy itself is in danger.

2. How did you conclude that language is more of a causal force on our politics than other factors, such as interest group politics or the nature of the political process?

Political language is not a separate force: it is the currency in which interest group politics, the political process and every aspect of public policy are expressed. It fuels political debate, and either enables or prevents the deal-making between different political interests on which tangible progress depends in a democracy. 

I don’t deny that other forces are also driving the anger and disillusion in our countries, for example real-world economics. Even here though, the rhetorical layer plays a significant part. At present, the US economy is recovering and real incomes are growing, including for the middle-classes. But many voters are in an angrier mood than they were during the last presidential cycle when the effects of the financial crash were more apparent. The idea of an economic betrayal by Wall Street and Washington—an idea assiduously spread in speeches, interviews and blogs by politicians and commentators – has taken hold, and voters may continue to believe it even if their personal financial circumstances have improved.

3. What are the most important ways that changes in journalism—both the norms of reporting as well as the technology of the media—have impacted our political discourse?

Mainstream media is undergoing a disruption and fragmentation not unlike that affecting mainstream politics. The erosion of legacy business models and the emergence of new digital rivals has squeezed newsrooms and journalistic expertise, and put a premium on impact, brevity and strong opinion. There are hold-outs—The New York Times is one—but the result across much of the news media is poorer coverage of the rest of the world, fewer investigations, and a retreat from seriousness. In their anxiety to keep up and attract younger users, legacy editors often play too much weight on what is trending on social media. This has the effect of further accelerating what was already a frenetic 24/7 news cycle.

4. Can you discuss the relative impact of Margaret Thatcher, Silvio Berlusconi, and Ronald Reagan?

In her way, Margaret Thatcher was as radical as Ronald Reagan and believed in many of the same things: deregulation, reduction of the state, reliance on the market, staunch opposition to communism and the USSR. But she was a much more conventional orator and lacked both Reagan’s astonishing tonal range and his ability to reach beyond ideological boundaries. As a result, while he remains the second most popular post-war US president, she is a divisive and widely detested figure in Britain to this day.

Silvio Berlusconi came to prominence in the decade after the Reagan/Thatcher era. He claimed to stand for a similar radicalism, but I believe is better understood as a populist insurgent and arguably the first of the modern wave of anti-politicians. His background and persona was of a ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ business leader and entrepreneur and his rhetoric—demotic, punchy, full of off-color remarks and jokes—is strikingly similar to Donald Trump’s.

5. What do you think of those who criticize “false equivalence” in our discussions of partisanship?

This is in part an argument about facts and opinions or, to put it another way, about the proper role of authority in public language. I believe, for instance, that science and medicine have a special claim to authority and that the media should not give equal airtime or column inches to non-scientific “skeptics” as they do to scientists during the debates about issues like global warming, GMOs and vaccine safety. But our conventions on authority have become confused. Sometimes know-nothing celebrities are given equal time with experts. Sometimes scientists overstep the mark and use the language and tactics of political advocates.

In the realm of political partisanship, “false equivalence” is a more difficult subject. Much of politics is opinion and, in a democracy, all opinions have a right to be heard, even the ones which we personally find offensive or hurtful. Attempts to suppress such opinions through censorship or intimidation are wrong in theory and counter-productive in practice. Western countries are paying the price now for dodging a full debate on immigration for years, despite clear evidence of mounting public disquiet.

When politicians say things which are factually untrue, or when they are inconsistent, the media has a duty to report that, prominently and immediately. There is a bright line between factual untruths and legitimate political opinions (even when the latter are offensive). This line was forgotten by some of the media in the early part of the current presidential cycle.

6. How do you distinguish between language that polarizes versus language that has become polarized as a result of our electorate?

Language often becomes polarizing because it is associated with an argument about underlying ideas or values. Both pro- and anti-abortionists use an essentially absolutist language of rights, the first associated with the inalienable right of a woman to control her own body, the second associated with the inalienable right of the unborn child. Neither side recognizes the legitimacy of the other’s use of the word ‘right’. This kind of language-gap is essentially impossible to bridge.

But sometimes progress can be made. We’re currently living through a battle over the word ‘fair’ in many economic and moral contexts. But those in favor of same-sex marriage won a decisive advantage by couching their argument in the language of civic equivalency: why shouldn’t two men or two women enjoy the same right to marry as a man and a woman? The opponents of same-sex marriage couldn’t find a countervailing fairness-based argument, and more or less ran out of words.

I can think of one important example of intrinsically polarizing language that has little or nothing to do with moral or religious “values.” This is the widening gap between the language of technocratic elites—that of lawyers, economists, scientists, planners, politicians and those who report and comment on them in the media—and the general public. To me, this is a critical driver of the disillusion which is sweeping the western world and which has created an opportunity for anti-politicians like Beppe Grillo in Italy and Donald Trump in the US. The incomprehension cuts both ways: not realizing how little they are understood or trusted by many voters, the technocrats have been taken by surprise by political developments in country after country – and especially by the UK’s decision to leave the EU. 

7. What would you say some of the most defining key words are in contemporary politics?

Liar. Hope. Fair. The elite. Ordinary/everyday/hard-working. Change. Strong. Authentic. Nightmare. Take back control. Experts – as in pro-Brexiter Michael Gove’s remark: “This country has had enough of experts.”

8. Can you point to any earlier periods in the U.S. or overseas where we can see what a healthier period of rhetoric would look like?

No country has ever enjoyed an era of “perfect” rhetoric. When George Orwell wrote his great essay “Politics and the English Language” at the end of World War II, he painted a bleak picture of the rhetoric of the time. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that although the language of democracy became discredited in continental Europe and gave way to the false rhetoric of fascism and communism, that of the wartime leaders of Britain and America prevailed and set the stage for decades of prosperity and growth. Ideological differences certainly didn’t disappear, and there were dark chapters like McCarthyism, but for the most part political leaders found a way of expressing their goals—technocratic progress, social inclusion, strong national identity and defense—coherently and convincingly to ordinary citizens.

9. How can we revive and rebuild our language of politics after 2016?

Politicians could treat the public like grown-ups and share some of their actual thinking about policy, including the painful trade-offs, with the people they want to vote for them. Reciprocal altruism might even lead them to shout less and allow their opponents to finish the sentence more often so that those same opponents extend the same courtesy to them. The media too could cut fewer corners, take more chances with the journalism which costs more—international reporting, investigations—but which may ultimately make for a better business. Without going soft, they could also allow politicians more space to address the public in their own words. As for the public themselves? Teach them how words and images are used, and abused, to sell packaged goods, political parties and wars, holy or otherwise. Let’s teach our children rhetoric.


Julian Zelizer is a fellow in New America's Political Reform program. He is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and writes a weekly column for