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Editorial: What to listen for on the campaign trail

Published: 7/11/2019 9:24:13 AM

In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” British author and philosopher George Orwell decried the replacement of clear, concise and simple language in political speech with pompous phrases, political cliches and rhetoric crafted to obfuscate rather than illuminate.

“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

President Trump, who cares nothing for facts, truth, consistency or logic, is a master of political language – though his vocabulary is limited. He keeps it simple, emotional and often stupid, and that’s worked for him.

There are two-dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls running to replace Trump. On any given day at least one of them is campaigning in New Hampshire. Hear them out. Rhetorically, they can be divided roughly between fighters and uniters. The fighters, because fighting is inherently divisive, can’t unite. The uniters, as President Obama found, can’t succeed as long as the Senate is controlled by Republicans, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, who are opposed to compromise and devoted to obstruction. Any candidate who says, with at least feigned sincerity, that “It’s time for both parties to come together” is seriously out of touch.

Listen to what the candidates say and how they use language. Is their rhetoric, like “Make America Great Again,” pablum for people who gum their ideas? Do they regularly trot out cliches like “lunch-bucket voters,” “hard-working Americans” or “common-sense legislation”?

Does a candidate who talks about “families sitting around the kitchen table” discussing their struggle to make ends meet realize that hardly anyone does that anymore?

Any candidate who describes government spending in terms of a family’s budget should not be taken seriously. Governments can print money, families can’t – at least not without going to prison.

While campaigning, Trump constantly promised to “drain the swamp,” a reference to our nation’s low-lying capital and environs peopled with lawyers, lobbyists, government workers and other alleged swamp creatures. Instead he’s draining it of career public servants in both parties whose agencies are led by unqualified Trump appointees committed to weakening or eliminating the agency they ostensibly lead.

Democrats should promise to return competency to government.

Politicians who use the word “socialism” do so at their peril. The word means different things to different people and few of them are good. Though roads, public schools, police and fire departments, national defense and government itself are socialized, that’s not what voters think about when they hear the word.

Be wary of candidates who claim to know what all Americans will or won’t support. The country is too diverse to make such a claim with a straight face. Lofty, inspirational statements about what America can do or be, absent specific policy proposals or plans, appeal to emotion but lack substance. They are time-killers, empty rhetoric.

“The great enemy of clear language,” Orwell wrote, “is insincerity. 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 squirting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as keeping out of politics. All issues are political issues.”

That’s true in this age as well.

Watch for the candidates who discuss issues knowledgeably, in simple language, with arguments backed by facts. They might be serious contenders.

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