Politics

Hackneyed Gab

Politicians and the media "do democracy a disservice" by resorting to cliches.
by | July 2007

'Tis the season for oceanic oratory: There's bound to be a "tide," but will it turn into a "wave"? Or, in a "worst-case scenario," could this be the year when many are "swept away" by a "tsunami"?

These references, of course, are not to hurricanes or any other physical force, but to cliche-ridden descriptions of the "political landscape." Sometimes it seems as if there is no element that politicians care so much about as water. "Heated" issues will sometimes "roil the waters," which may be why candidates--or would-be candidates known as "hopefuls"--are constantly "testing the waters," even in land-locked states such as Iowa.

Political discourse has always lent itself to cliche, but in an era of "poll-tested language," politicians--and the journalists who cover them--seem to have an increasingly difficult time expressing themselves in spontaneous or particularly meaningful ways. "The concrete melts into the abstract, and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed," wrote George Orwell in a celebrated 1946 essay, "Politics and the English Language."

It's still true that once you've heard a political cliche enough times, you stop thinking about what it means. Consider "the perfect storm." Once a humble book title, the phrase has become a catchall description for any confluence of events that conspire to create a situation seemingly "outside the realm" of human control.

Pension funds, for example, are running "out of control" deficits in practically every state. The reason most often cited by politicians is not increases in employee benefits--"promises made, promises kept"-- but the so-called perfect storm conjured by low interest rates, a sluggish stock market and "industry-wide failures" among airlines and automakers.

"'The perfect storm' means I really couldn't do anything about it, and now we're screwed," says Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist. "It's time to 'nip it in the bud.'"

Perhaps because of the uncertainty of storm forecasting, sometimes politicians, like friends describing a movie, will tell us not what they "stand for" but what their campaign is about. Usually, "it's about the future."

For example, when Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, who is running for Maryland governor, fell well behind his primary opponent in the "money chase," his campaign manager sought to dismiss the news. "This race is not about money," he said. "It's about the future of Maryland." After all, "the only poll that counts is the one they conduct on Election Day."

If cliches in Orwell's day masked honest expression and thought, today they serve a "dual purpose"--confusing voters because everyone employs the same euphemisms.

Candidates and their hired "wordsmiths" have all adopted the wisdom of conservative activist Paul Weyrich, who once said, "I always look at what the enemy is doing and, if they're winning, copy it." It's hard for voters to keep straight whether this year it's Democrats complaining about the "culture of corruption" or whether it's still the Republicans' turn. And which party is more likely to offer "real answers and real solutions," as Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann keeps saying?

Politics Lost, the new book by Time columnist Joe Klein, is "chockablock" with examples of both "banana peel words"--slippery words that politicians always use--and "words that could have been uttered by…anyone." Words like "responsibility" and "respect" and "values."

The reason for all this emptiness, Klein suggests, is television. "Politicians realized that there is no such thing as a local meeting anymore--every word that they uttered could find a national audience if they screwed up," he said in a recent interview. As a result, "caution is an aphrodisiac to politicians."

Sixty years ago, Orwell commented that "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." Is impoverished political language still a real problem for democracy?

It probably depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is.

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