Political language today

George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay Politics and the English Language makes the case that politics degrades language because when politicians want to look truthful while telling lies they do so by making their language convoluted and using big words so that the listener is not aware of what the speaker is actually saying. Orwell says that users of such language should be viewed warily and recommends that people who want to communicate truthfully and accurately would do well to adopt a straightforward style using simple and common words and vivid and accurate metaphors.

But Ed Smith argues that Orwell’s method for diagnosing deceptive political language may be outdated.

Orwell argues that “the great enemy of clear language 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.”

I suspect the opposite is now true. When politicians or corporate front men have to bridge a gap between what they are saying and what they know to be true, their preferred technique is to convey authenticity by speaking with misleading simplicity. The ubiquitous injunction “Let’s be clear”, followed by a list of five bogus bullet-points, is a much more common refuge than the Latinate diction and Byzantine sentence structure that Orwell deplored.

We live in a self-consciously plain-spoken political era. But Orwell’s advice, ironically, has not elevated the substance of debate; it has merely helped the political class to avoid the subject more skillfully. The art of spin is not (quite) supplanting truth with lies. It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skilful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense.

Using plain and clear language is not a moral virtue, as Orwell hoped. Things aren’t that simple. In fact, giving the impression of clarity and straightforwardness is often a strategic game.

Smith is not saying that directness and simplicity are not good things. They are. But they can be used for both good and bad ends.

There is some empirical evidence for Smith’s premise that political language is becoming simpler, but not necessarily more honest. The Sunlight Foundation finds that the reading level of political speeches in the US has dropped over time to an average grade level now of 10.6. By contrast, the Constitution was written at a 17.8 level, the Declaration of Independence at a 15.1 grade level and the Federalist Papers at a 17.1 level. President Obama’s State of the Union speeches regularly clock in at the eighth grade level.

For the sake of the argument, let us assume that Smith is right. Then that raises the question of why the change might have occurred. Maybe it is because in Orwell’s time, the main mode of political communication was the written word or, more infrequently, the spoken one via the radio. Without visual cues, people tend to focus more on what is actually said. (On a personal level, since I rarely watch TV news, I notice that my reaction to speeches and major events often differs from the reactions of people who do watch.)

Nowadays, the skill that is most valuable to people in the public eye is the ability to look directly into the camera in close up and ooze sincerity, even while saying things that are misleading or even flat out untrue. In that context, it may well be better to not distract the viewer with complex ideas and words and reasoning but instead let one’s style of delivery do all the persuasive work.


  1. mobius says

    So the RCC tells us that God directs his priests, which would include the cardinals. So it seems to me that if God had selected a man to be pope, he would direct the cardinals to elect him, and the first ballot should be unanimous, or nearly so.

    But, of course, that is NOT what we see.

    But then, no one in the RCC seems to question this.

  2. Ulysses says

    Nowadays, the skill that is most valuable to people in the public eye is the ability to look directly into the camera in close up and ooze sincerity, even while saying things that are misleading or even flat out untrue.

    As the old saying goes: “Once you can fake sincerity you can sell anything.”

  3. smrnda says

    I recall reading that essay by Orwell and came to a similar conclusion – that a great deal of political speech wasn’t complicated, sounded simple, but was at its heart just meaningless. I recall a quote about the Affordable Care Act

    “This act is an insult to the entrepreneurship of the American people.”

    The biggest word (entrepreneurship) is still a common enough one, but parse that sentence and it makes absolutely no sense. It seems that political camps come up with lists of words with ‘good’ or ‘bad’ connotations, and simply go from there. Obama is both socialist, fascist, Muslim, and atheist since they’re all just synonyms for ‘bad.’

    A lot of simple maxims are platitudes and deepities without any real meaning, but somehow they feel like they mean something. I think the real confusion is that the language is simple, but it is also not really clear when you actually dig into what the words are supposed to mean.

    The kind of acting and physical presentation can divert attention away from what someone is saying – I would recommend looking up JG Ballard’s book “The Atrocity Exhibition” as he mentions this is connection with a piece on Ronald Reagan – that Reagan’s mannerisms and nonverbal communication practically expressed the opposite of what he was saying much of the time, and that (to Ballard) the fact that people might not pay that much attention to the words was being cleverly exploited by him and others.

  4. Mano Singham says

    Shame on you. You know that you are never supposed to point out all the contradictions that immediately arise when you postulate an all-powerful god.

  5. garnetstar says

    I think that in the past, politicians couldn’t get away with just blatantly inventing their own reality, as is SOP today. They’d get more easily found out, most people then agreed on what reality was.

    If you truly believe in whatever reality you’ve constructed for yourself, it’s easier to be sincere while telling flat-out lies because you are, in fact, sincere. As said, simple language conveys that better.

    If, as a political strategy, you want to get the voters to live in an unreal world, so you start out by telling debilerate lies again and again, you will end by coming to believe your own lies, at least to some extent. Thus we have the performance of Karl Rove on election night.

    But of course, a simpler explanation is that, since few people now read at a level above 8.0, politicians have adjusted their language so as to be understandable.


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