Political rhetorical styles

John McWhorter is a linguist who wrote an excellent book The Power of Babel on the evolution of language that I discussed about five years ago. He writes good essays on rhetorical styles and has analyzed the differences between the Clinton and Obama speeches at the Democratic convention.

McWhorter added to the praise of Bill Clinton’s speech and suggested that Barack Obama could learn something from Clinton’s style.

Clinton pulled off an interesting feat: making an information-rich convention speech. He resisted the crude, sound-bite rhythm expected of such addresses, holding off much of the applause, almost seeming to despair that the audience’s standing ovation tic might derail the points he was trying to make.

Yet his address felt not the least bit overstuffed or pedantic, nor did it err into the opposite excess, that of chattiness.

Obama is less inclined to that mode—does he think it would sound too teacherly or condescending?

He should rethink. He’s older now, for one, no longer the “skinny kid with the funny name.” He ventured at one point that being American is to cherish not only rights but responsibilities—but followed it up with gauzy scenarios, speechifying, rather than taking the occasion to highlight the value of this notion of the social contract and how America began as a unique opportunity to put that idea to the test—an opportunity the Republicans are besmirching in the name of being more “American” than he is. It could have been grand.

McWhorter once even bravely tried to make sense of Palinspeak, that weird quasi-Joycean effusion that Sarah Palin utters in which words float around, barely tethered to the ideas that supposedly inspired them, along the way trampling all over the rules of grammar and syntax in the process of creating run-on sentences that can end abruptly without warning. Palinspeak is a verbal quicksand that many other linguists have foolishly ventured into and those who managed to escape were never being able to think coherently again.

As an example of Palinspeak, consider this statement uttered just last week during the Democratic convention after John Kerry made fun of her Russia comments.

“How does he even know my name? I mean aren’t these guys supposed to be these bigwig elites who don’t waste their time on the little people like me, me representing the average American who yeah I did say in Alaska you can see Russia from our land base and I was making the point that we are strategically located on the globe and when it comes to transportation corridors and resources that are shared and fought over, Alaska and I as the governor, had known what I was doing in dealing with some international issues that had to do with our resources that could help secure the nation.”

Apart from the nauseating false humility (she’s surprised that a career politician like John Kerry knows the name of the vice-presidential candidate from just the previous election?) and the “poor little ol’ ordinary me being bullied by these big fancy guys” shtick that she never tires of, the rest of it typifies the style that McWhorter accurately diagnosed in 2010.

Palin is given to meandering phraseology of a kind suggesting someone more commenting on impressions as they enter and leave her head rather than constructing insights about them.

What truly distinguishes Palin’s speech is its utter subjectivity: that is, she speaks very much from the inside of her head, as someone watching the issues from a considerable distance.

This reminds me of toddlers who speak from inside their own experience in a related way: they will come up to you and comment about something said by a neighbor you’ve never met, or recount to you the plot of an episode of a TV show they have no way of knowing you’ve ever heard of. Palin strings her words together as if she were doing it for herself — meanings float by, and she translates them into syntax in whatever way works, regardless of how other people making public statements do it.

Palinspeak is a flashlight panning over thoughts, rather than thoughts given light via considered expression.

Why does she speak like this? McWhorter has a suggestion.

Part of why Palin speaks the way she does is that she has grown up squarely within a period of American history when the old-fashioned sense of a speech as a carefully planned recitation, and public pronouncements as performative oratory, has been quite obsolete.

I am not sure that I buy this. It is true that we are far from the era of Lincoln-Douglas political debate styles, and live in a world of brief sound bites and Twitter-type brevity. But high quality speech is by no means dead. Even in everyday life, one sees it on display. I spend quite a bit of time with young people and although they have their own patois when conversing with each other, they are quite capable of pulling off a traditional smooth speech when the occasion demands it

I think Palin is just in a class by herself. It is not the case that she has coherent thoughts but hasn’t had practice in translating them into words. I think her speech deficiencies reflect an incoherence in her thinking that would normally have caused her to hit her political ceiling when she became governor of Alaska and whom the rest of the nation would never have heard of except for the fact that John McCain plucked her out of obscurity.

McWhorter ends with a somewhat pessimistic view.

I don’t think Palin’s phraseology is actively attractive to her fans. Rather, what is remarkable is that this way of speaking doesn’t prevent someone, today, from public influence. Candidates bite the dust for being untelegenic, dour, philanderers, strident, or looking silly posing in a tank. But having trouble rubbing a noun and a verb together is not considered a mark against one as a figure of political authority.


  1. Jared A says

    I always thought her speech pattern was typical of intellectual laziness coupled with narcissistic self-assurance. The situational narcissism part is really important, because I can see myself making a few Palin-like speech blunders if I was suddenly thrust in front of a camera without warning (Not that she was, buts I like to flatter myself that I would be more coherent if I had time to prepare.). But the normal response to having to watch yourself driveling like that would be shame and horror. I guess that the automatic gushing response she got from her fans had the opposite psychological effect.

    Does laziness always win when the fear of shame disappears?

  2. Synfandel says

    I think we’re overanalysing. As McWhorter himself wrote:

    The easy score is to flag this speech style as a sign of moronism.

    “Moronism” is, of course, a rhetorical overstatement, but it hits the target. Sarah Palin is not very intelligent.

    Inarticulateness is seen by a large portion of the US electorate as indicative of being of the common people as opposed to of the elite. They want someone in the White House with whom they can relate, even if that means electing a president with very little intellectual muscle.

    President Obama and Mr. Romney are both accused by their respective opposite camps of being out-of-touched elitists: Mr. Romney for his money and the president for his education. (Mr. Romney’s law degree and MBA are rarely mentioned.) Mr. Romney makes his pecuniary eliteness, and its effect on his thought processes, abundantly clear on a regular basis. The case is harder to make against the president. It will be interesting to see whether Mr. Romney’s lack of the common touch will cost him much in the coming election.

  3. Chiroptera says

    The case is harder to make against the president.

    The President eats arugula. And doesn’t know what kind of cheese goes on a Philly cheese steak.

  4. Synfandel says

    Yeah, and if he did know he’d pronounce it pro-vo-lo-nay like some snooty Eye-talian, not pro-vo-loan like a Real American.

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