3 Really Weird Quirks of Political Language in the US

Orwell, in his essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’ bemoans the fact that political language consists “largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” This is a consequence of hiding the true meaning of statements to avoid visible contradictions (between the aims and actions of parties), and in general, to hide negative content. However, the decadence of political language has increased since Orwell.

Departments of Politics and Schools of Government

This entire article was inspired by Benedict Anderson’s article in the London Review of Books, which drew attention to the fact that, in America, the faculties where instruction in political studies takes place are often called ‘Schools of Government’ (e.g. Cornell, Harvard). This arises from a peculiar American exceptionalism which denies the relativism of ‘politics’, instead asserting ‘government’ as a kind of technocracy which proceeds on universal laws of established fact that make up American political ideology. Thus politics becomes about policy, not ideology or particular cultural features of countries. Thus portraying these institutions as places of inquiring study overplays their base meaning as schools of the minutiae of technocracy, valid in its own right, but not comparable to political study in depth or scope, and thus wholly unsuited to subsuming this, as they have done as politics as a study has grown from mere ‘government’ in America.

Tough Choices

It’s worth asking in what sense these choices (when this term is used as a euphemism for austerity by the right) are ‘tough.’ Making a tough decision, at least in regards to domestic matters, means that some sort of forward-thinking sacrifice, necessary pain, now, is required because we know it to be better in the long run. The self-congratulatory politicians who later laud their ability to have made these tough decisions have articulated their positions  about these issues before elections, and present their leadership in terms of ‘follow-through’ – the whole aim is to have all the answers going in. A U-turn during one’s term must still be spun as sticking to pre-established principles and, insofar as is possible, avoid the implication of changing one’s mind, because leadership has come to be equated with some kind of omniscience, and thus to be a good leader, the claim to omniscience must be upheld at all costs. So, what is it that’s being sacrificed?

For a political party, the only things that can be sacrificed are principles or electoral success. In the case of the right, perhaps the only ‘tough choice’ (i.e. implementation of austerity) which goes against their other beliefs is raising taxes, and of course, they never make this ‘tough choice’. Furthermore, the acknowledgement that we are dealing with a ‘tough choice’ as described above already implies that the tough choice is universally acknowledged (or believed to be universally acknowledged by the implementers of the choice, hence why they trumpet it) as the correct choice. It is believed that it will benefit us in the long run; that is why the choice was made, not by weighing up options, but by following through on one’s principles about the best policies to pursue. It thus does not constitute an argument for the choices made – it is a self-lionisation on the part of the right, gratuitous praising of what they imply, by using the term, is common, accepted knowledge, not some attempt to win over voters by reasoned argumentation – and, if the right believes it to be popular, they are clearly not sacrificing electoral success. Thus, they sacrifice nothing; ‘tough choice’ means nothing, but somehow adds a sheen of strong leadership to the empty idea of making decisions that are acknowledged to be correct.

Principled

People often say that they value a ‘principled politician’. This is sometimes equated with ‘ideological consistency’, but that is in fact just an empirical way to measure what is really at play., That is, exactly what Plato describes in The Republic – he who does not want to lead, should lead. We have an  understanding that wanting to lead is a quality we most definitely do not want in a leader. And not just because they will do anything to get elected, in blind self-interest, even if isn’t good for us – hence why we can measure their principled-ness by ideological consistency, for it indicates an attitude that it is more important that the things the politician believes to be best are implemented, than he or she be the one who leads or implements. It is a marker of reflection on what they believe is the correct ideology, and is extremely difficult to combine with shameless pursuit of power. We comprehend the emptiness of this person, we realise the contradiction of electing someone who’ll ‘get stuff done,’ when the ‘stuff’ is absolutely unrelated to the elected’s aims, or, indeed, to the electorate’s stated wishes. If we are choosing based on ‘leadership’, then there is not even any public sentiment for the shameless leader to pander to – we’re stuck at an impasse of empty ‘leading.’ Related to this is the oft repeated wish to gain ‘the power to change’; without some specification of what is to be changed this is but a vacuous statement of the person’s vanity. What exactly is the change is unimportant – only that they were the one who changed it, or, somewhat pitifully, had the power to do so, if they had actually wanted anything other than this empty potential. Thus a self-proclaimed ‘principled’ politician states very little; a neutral statement, a simple necessity of having anything to actually decide about in democracy, has been transmuted into a positive one.

In the tradition of Orwell we should all take a dim view of the current state of political language, not least because its repetitious use forms so much of the ‘commentary’ we use in conversation. The agreed upon terms we employ form the foundations of political discourse, so we should not allow them to be unexamined (and therefore empty, for they have no definite meaning) phrases which explain in terms of the very things that need explained. This sampling is but a flavour of the, not merely clichéd, but empty, and hence obscurantist terminology we use – and all the more so if we don’t know it to be so.

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