The State of Political Rhetoric

In April 1946, George Orwell wrote “Politics and the English Language”, a concise criticism of politicians’ and journalists’ use of English in reporting the news. The passage titled “Meaningless Words” struck me as particularly significant. It reads:

“The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

Today, terms such as ‘fascist’, ‘authoritarian’, ‘fake news’, and ‘socialist’ have been used as catch-all terms. The continuance of this oversaturation has led to the degradation of the meaning of these terms, undermining their ability to account for the necessary descriptions of phenomena. Therefore, a deeper examination of political institutions and the rhetoric used needs to be examined.

When politicians on the right can label politicians on the left “socialist”, and politicians on the left can label politicians on the right as “fascist”, it becomes easier to understand why both political parties refuse to work together. In fact, the use of this rhetoric tends to ostracize moderates.

Moving away from the center and toward the fringes not only harms the political process but the nation as a whole. Legislation passed along partisan lines suffers from confirmation bias, and results in a net loss for the American people. Our current political climate perpetuates this and, therefore, cannot be the starting point for a renaissance of political rhetoric.

Another avenue that could shift political rhetoric to the center is the mainstream media.

Everyday, millions of Americans tune in to listen to their preferred news outlet. If you turn on Fox News you are likely to hear about how people on welfare are lazy, and stories about immigrants committing criminal acts. Likewise, channels like CNN or MSNBC will likely attempt to accuse Republicans for hating the poor and/or minorities. The mainstream media has become reductionist; an arena where simplified arguments are accepted as the norm and not an exception.

And in the rare instance that when pundits attempt to make thoughtful and factual arguments on these networks, they are dismissed because they don’t meet the narrative that the news station is trying to push. (Here is one example on Fox News.) The normalization of talking points and emotionally-charged claims rather than facts only furthers the polarization of political rhetoric.

Additionally, US politicians are now accepting these norms. Debates between opposing political parties sound more like “Final Thoughts” from Tomi Lahren than in-depth analyses of the issues. The result is a lose-lose for the people who have less access to important information, and for the politicians who are constantly challenged to raise the volume on their rhetoric. This eliminates the opportunity for the media to be an avenue for raising the level of discussion.

A final avenue, and one that I think could be the most successful in kick starting a shift in rhetoric, is college campuses. While college campuses are deemed to be bastions of liberal ideology and indoctrination facilities by a majority of right-leaning political figures, the academy,  at the micro level, offers untapped potential for political rhetoric. A college campus is one of the few places where you will find a plethora of political ideology and diversity. A conservative from Texas can sit and have lunch with a liberal from California, and talk about everything from political ideology to hometown culture, which can allow both participants to grasp each other’s political identity and understand how it was shaped.

These singular conversations have two benefits. First, when meeting somebody of a different political ideology, a person has to deal with the mental stress caused by being exposed to a different view than theirs, otherwise referred to as cognitive dissonance. Dealing with cognitive dissonance will force participants to mediate their views, or force the participants to form a rational explanation that allows the other participant to understand why they have that view, thereby raising the level of political rhetoric being used.

The second advantage of these conversations on college campuses is that they break up political polarization of groups of people. Participants can’t simply rely on their talking points—they must address the issues head on. These micro-level discussions have the chance of gradually spilling over to the classroom and society, which will improve the quality of political rhetoric.

Through all political mediums, facts and analysis should be favored over emotions and talking points. Future issues and disputes will be solved by allowing people to take both sides of the political spectrum into consideration, and using that information to reach compromises. Thus, the first step towards solving these future issues should be the improvement of the use of political rhetoric.  

-Shawn McFall


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