That’s a very straight-ahead question. I’m sure you, gentle reader, have an equally straight-ahead and sagacious answer. I’m relatively certain that if you were to tell me your answer, I’d be perfectly delighted with it and offer you my ready assent. There are lots of answers to that question and they’re all good and interesting and thoroughly sensible.
So I worry a little for the economy of what I am about to say. That is, if there are plenty of simple, appropriate, and sensible answers to that question amicably inhabiting the mouths of thoughtful Americans, why hypothesize about the nature of political language? Seems like taking the long way ‘round. But sometimes the long way ‘round can be enlightening. Maybe I’ll just go along and see what comes and not worry about the economy so much.
If you listen to the politicians in this country, you might notice something curious about their language: they sound dishonest. I’m not saying they lie (though some do), but they always sound like they are putting something past you. They sound a little like the Ginsu knife salesman, circling a point they never make hoping that if they talk long enough and well enough you won’t notice. I can usually tell when someone is speaking but not saying anything because I’ll get bored and a little annoyed. That’s how I feel when I hear these guys talk.
Why would someone use language in that way? Why would someone speak but deliberately fail to communicate? One reason might be they are intentionally deceitful. They’re fast-talkers, swindlers, con-men of some sort trying to confuse you or convince you of something without you knowing it. It would be a little bleak if that were the case with our politicians. To employ the interpretive principle of charity, I’ll assume politicians are not like this. Some people may believe that politicians are like this, and they may very well be, but I’d like to explore alternative explanations. Because I’m difficult.
Here’s an idea: Someone might talk around a point, though they’re not intentionally deceiving their listener, because that’s just the way they talk. Intentionally or not, the speaker has learned to use language in such a way that they systematically fail to communicate. It’s what Foucault might call their discursive format. It’s their own non-language, so to speak.
That’s a little weird. A non-language? A language of non-communication? A system of speech patterns that people develop, and despite no deceitful intention, sounds dishonest, like they are deliberately hiding their point and speak to manipulate rather than communicate? A more economic man might turn back at this point. But let’s maybe push it a little further. Just to see how far we can go.
How and why could such speech patterns develop? Now that one’s not so straight-ahead. Was political rhetoric in America always like this? Did Politicians always sound so stiff and humorless? What if they did not? Is it possible that something has happened in America in the last hundred years that has bred this language?
What has happened in America in the last hundred years? For one, America, among other countries, has experienced massive population growth. Where politicians used to compete for thousands of votes, they now compete for millions of votes. For two, the dissemination of information has reached instantaneous speed and coverage. Every word a politician says can potentially reach millions of voters, and often does in no time at all. So when a politician speaks now, he or she speaks not to the people in front of them, but to the potential millions of viewers watching and listening at home and abroad. Is this so different from what happened a hundred years ago, before tv and internet? Did politicians not always speak carefully for fear their words might echo over the wire? Maybe so. But was it always securely planted in the politicians’ consciousness that when they spoke, they spoke to a prodigious yet silent mass of people they never met and knew only vaguely through opinion polls? We’re treading deep into speculation, but I wonder if the transforming relationship between political speaker and audience has anything to do with the nature of modern political language.
Maybe we can bring the picture a little more into focus. Politics has always been a sales industry. The candidate is the product. The people are the customers, and the political speech makes the sale. With rising populations and increased interconnectivity (globalization), the same thing has happened to the political industry as has happened to every industry touched by globalization: the relationship between the seller and the buyer has become impersonal and communication between the two has devolved to market signaling. Just as the consumer no longer buys his shoes from the local cobbler, but from faceless corporations with one-size-fits-all marketing campaigns, so the voter no longer chooses a candidate of whom they know and approve, but merely selects a name which heads a large corporation all its own.
What’s happened to political language is symptomatic of a national trend towards impersonal dealings between large anonymous entities. The interpersonal connection is just not there anymore. Is it any wonder that language looses warmth and touch? Is it surprising that politicians sound like tape recordings of computers reading stereo instructions? I think it’s not only understandable, but telling as well.
So, to address the second question raised by the marquee, why does Obama resonate? I contend that Obama resonates because political language, owing to a globalization which endangers personal connection (despite the pretense of enhanced communication), has lost meaning, and Obama brings the warmth of genuine communication back to a voting population gone bored with idle political chatter. Sure, he’s also fantastic looking, young, successful, idealistic, hopeful, and all that. Those might be closer-to-hand explanations for Obama’s speedy ascension up the political ranks. But I’ll tell you something: I’m not intensely bored when I listen to Obama. And there might be something to that.