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Langeage Issues in American Politics

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The Political Power and Efficacy of Invective

“Language,” according to an early prominent rhetorician, “is the keystone on which civility depends.” Of course, not just any language will do. Specifically, it is civil language upon which equally civil society depends. Were everyday conversation to begin with a casual insult or a series of mocking jokes, humans would be far less likely to trust, value, and depend on one another, thus limiting the unifying force necessary for civil, or civilized, life. In many ways, therefore, “linguistic incompetence…is a sign of social impotence” (Shrank 416); at least, this was the case in the lauded years of Shakespeare’s London. Society in the United States being what it is in 2016, civil language is hardly regarded as the cornerstone of civilization—indeed, it is often considered the primary roadblock in conducting “real” conversations and broaching solutions to “real” social problems. In general, aggressive language has become the focal point of action; civil language is dismissed as politically correct, a nuisance that, for everyone from layman to politician, stymies progress. All current candidates for presidency have displayed this propensity for uncivil language, whether that be as an overt threat or as a snide comment about an opponent’s intelligence. No doubt this uncivil language is useful for garnering attention, but, primarily, it is used to generate trust between candidate and constituent, to emphasize, paradoxically, the candidate’s approachability and practicality, as well as their effective volatility. In this paper, I examine the efficacy of Senator Bernie Sanders’ and businessman Donald J. Trump’s use of uncivil or aggressive language in vying for voters.

“Where there is disagreement, there is a risk of incivility,” states Thomas W. Benson, Professor of Rhetoric at Penn State University. “[I]n many cases, incivility is itself a tactic in political discourse, employed as an indicator of sincerity, as a marker of the high stakes in a disagreement” (27). Supposedly overstepping the bounds of acceptable language demonstrates a willingness to overlook decorum for the sake of candor—an “irrepressible outburst of [sincerity],” as it were. As constituents, it is inevitable that we face some toxic rhetoric from our candidates—it is, for better or worse, the nature of political conflict that allows, and even encourages, this level of communication. Such political invective has prevailed since the inception of democracy in the United States, and generally follows a clear trajectory: one candidate lives by the rhetoric of challenge—the rhetoric of the frontier, of the tough-skinned, ambitious Americans who built a shiny new country from the spare parts of uncharted land; the rival candidate must counter this rhetoric, which resonates with most Americans, by whatever means necessary, while also trying desperately to uphold his or her own “frontier” rhetoric (Benson 25-26). This is what often leads to statements like, “I firmly support the Second Amendment. I myself own two rifles and hunt deer every year. And this is why it pains me to say we need much stricter gun control methods.” Adhering to a rhetorical trope is much easier than adhering to the same trope for the sake of questioning it; thus, these statements also generate ambivalence, a feeling very few people appreciate when winnowing down their selection for president, and a feeling that other candidates, who perhaps take a less nuanced approach to a specific issue, easily capitalize on. Criticism may be of use here, but aggressive or uncivil criticism can be, and is, of greater use for generating more ambivalence not just of the candidate’s take on a political issue, but of the actual character and identity of the candidate.

Frustratingly, treading the lines of what David Green, author of The Language of Politics in America, calls “linguistic disobedience” can also provide a much-needed shift in the national conversation—one that “[refocuses it] on issues rather than upon personalities” (Green). This is, of course, much easier said than done, especially when some opponents have no qualms maintaining the status quo of personal attacks and articulating what they are against rather than what they are for. Green argues that the current two-party, two-worldview political system in the U.S. offers limited room for useful conversation:

Of all the linguistic conventions that characterize American political discourse, none have been more powerful, or had a more crippling effect on political communication, than the twin dualities of ‘left vs. right’ and ‘liberal vs. conservative.’ Politicians and media alike seem unable to think without reference to them…[a]nd these classifications, these labels, once applied, not only become part of public discourse, they become essential to the way voters think…Given that most Americans relate to these as polar opposites, how is the former to communicate with the latter?

These monolithic concepts of the “left” and the “right” automatically index the opposing side as antithetical to the other’s identity, an identity that must be maintained through language. As sociolinguist James Paul Gee remarks in one article, “To know any specific social language is to know how its characteristic design features are combined to carry out one or more specific social activities [and] how its characteristic lexical and grammatical design features are used to enact a particular socially situated identity” (719). This becomes particularly relevant in the social language of politics, which, as Benson articulates, is inherently fraught with conflict and is in need of regular performance; after all, who is Trump the politician without his now trademark racist and sexist insults? Who is Sanders the revolutionary without his talk of “fighting a rigged system?” These uses of aggression firmly demarcate boundaries between “us” and “them” by constructing a concrete identity through language; or, as Gee continues, “To know a particular social language is either to be able to ‘do’ a particular identity, using that social language, or to be able to recognize such an identity” (720). Once created, the offensive stance of a politician in need of winning votes (or making sure an opponent loses them) effectively becomes the politician him or herself. The social language of the uncivil, “no holds barred” politician attributed to creating and maintaining each identity is, then, almost inevitable. Hence, uncivil language (“Liberals are baby-killing atheists attacking our traditions!” “Conservatives are greedy racists trying to throw us back to the 1800s!”) further drives the wedge between political allies and political enemies, perpetuating linguistic hurdles as it has for decades.

If this phenomenon has consistently reared its head in American politics, what is creating this fuss about language in the 2016 presidential campaign? Potentially, it is not merely the aggressiveness of candidates’ language that has critics reeling but also the overall linguistic simplicity of the United States’ supposedly most qualified individuals. Critics describe the rhetoric being tossed around as “unpresidential” and “childish”—in the very literal sense, even. One study found that the linguistic simplicity of current candidates’ speeches is not unlike that of sixth graders (Thompson). (This of course was conducted using the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which only quantitatively measures syllables per word and words per sentence, and does not elucidate on the quality of the words and sentences themselves.) Thompson articulates that this is most likely due to the steadily more democratic approach to voting in the United States; long gone are the days of George Washington addressing a group of peers, who were of that minority of well-educated white landowners. It is up to modern candidates to reach the full breadth of potential voters, and this often requires the simplification of everything from vocabulary to syntax. This in itself is criticized as a “dumbing down” of communication, but it is even more the case when these simplified sentences are littered with insults, jibes, and the occasional threat. Unfortunately for contemporary critics, this abusive language is hardly new (Benson 26-27)—its aggravating and childish effects are merely highlighted by simple sentence structures and a strategically limited vocabulary. Perhaps uncivil language is more palatable when wrapped up in highly academic articulation.

The esoteric realm of academia, however, is much less palatable to the general population. It is this hunger for “like-minded” candidates and an easily identified enemy that encourages the use of insults and snide comments about opponents, a tactic all too familiar in the 2016 election cycle. As diametrically opposed as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have appeared during the campaign trail (perhaps best exemplified by their announcements for campaigning: Bernie speaking for ten minutes to a small crowd on a windy spring morning; Trump taking a leisurely hour to address a mass of admirers in one of his own glitzy towers), their use of aggressive speech about their opponents, and the ways they describe their own campaigns, is on a much more comparable level. The following examples are taken from speeches given during the turbulent months preceding the Iowa caucuses; it is necessary to point out that times of anticipation and trepidation, even with seemingly mundane activities, can contribute to emotionally heightened speech. In the case of vying for votes, the use of uncivil and “relatable” language is useful, and is strategically employed for maximum effect.

In his address to a crowd in Muscatine, Iowa, Donald Trump describes his place among his opponents rather than “boring” his crowd with politics. The beginning of his speech is littered with “I” statements, a behavior noted since his announcement for candidacy. These statements then lead to scattered praise of a campaign manager (“What a great guy”) and the crowd itself (“The people are very, very smart…we have the most loyal people”). This goes on for about half of his hour-long speech, so when he abruptly says, “Let’s talk about individual candidates for a while, should we do that?” the crowd is more than willing to follow his not-so-subtle suggestion. For the remaining half of his speech, Trump unleashes a string of petty insults that, coupled with his segue, have the endearing and theatrical effect of high school gossip. The following are a few samples of invective he uses in this speech: “This guy, Bernie Sanders, give me a break”; “She (Hillary) said false things about me, so I had to hit her hard”; “I could hit Bernie so hard…” (Live Broadcasting 2016). Characteristically, these statements are rather vague and allow Trump to go from one opponent—or even subject, since he often interjects with anecdotes—to the next. Trump’s insults and snide commentary are not covert; in fact, they make the bulk of his address and earn the most applause, and the most media attention.

All the way on the other end of the political spectrum is Bernie Sanders, who takes a comparatively mild approach to aggressive language but nonetheless uses it to create a sense of solidarity among his supporters. In yet another address to an Iowan crowd, Sanders opens by mockingly mourning his Republican friends’ “amnesia” during the past eight years: “We wish our Republican friends well on their road to recovery.” Taken as a slight against Republicans’ intelligence in general, it appears that this is the only overt jab at opponents in this speech. Much of Sanders’ aggressive language is in fact used to address his supporters’ discontent: “You demanded,” “We announced we were going to take on,” “You decided to stand up and fight,” and so on. The onus is primarily on his supporters, but the language Sanders uses to define them and their “revolution” against an overwhelming adversary is decidedly not the peaceful rhetoric for which many of his opponents mock him (Bernie 2016). Equally relevant is Sanders’ use of collective pronouns—it is always “we will fight,” rather than “I will fight,” a sample of what some define as a “socialized power orientation.” Employed to advance a cause rather than a person, this language emphasizes the power of the collective group and the long-term benefits of the “movement.” Its converse, a personalized power orientation, employs language geared toward instilling loyalty in the person speaking rather than the ideals he or she may be advocating (Robinson and Topping 195-196). In the case of Trump and Sanders, who more or less orient themselves socially or personally, this affects their perception nationwide, which continuously places expectations on their future language.

The underlying problem of language specifically utilized to aggravate either supporters or opponents is that this is often the only identifier a candidate has. At some point in the campaign, their language becomes the candidate: Trump becomes his amalgamation of bigoted statements, and Bernie becomes his “pie-in-the-sky” statements about equality and other “hippie” idealisms. Both Trump and Sanders become the voice of their constituents, but in the need to constantly maintain the identity with offensive or defensive statements, they become a highly exaggerated version of those supposedly undervalued voices (Brownstein). Linguistic anthropologist Laura M. Ahearn notes that the “reality-constituting power of language” necessarily influences all actors in a speech situation (276). Taken over the extensive course of a U.S. presidential campaign, the realities constituted in the language of all candidates is at once quite different and eerily similar; regardless of their various platforms and stances on political issues, they are all—harking back to the days of “frontier rhetoric”—“fighting” against a system in which they are the scrappy underdog. Historically, “underdog” characters face vehement backlash for any perceived overstepping of boundaries, linguistic boundaries included. Curiously, this does not often occur in presidential elections. In fact, in the case of an election that includes “outsiders” like an Independent (Sanders) and a political novice (Trump), they may “gain status within a less powerful group by vigorously challenging somebody with markedly more social institutional power using techniques such as impoliteness” (Culpeper 39). When both perceive their opponents as having that institutional power, or at least need their supporters to believe this power exists, leniency for impolite or uncivil language increases. In some cases, leniency becomes demand, fomenting a need amongst constituents for “real” talk that all too often manifests as the most recognizable form of argument: overt verbal attack that solidifies group identity and alienates the Other. Granting agency to linguistically defined “underdog” classes of citizens capitalizes on the strict definition and subsequent alienation of the Other. Sufficiently alienated, the Other is at constant risk of further demoralization via verbal attack.

According to Timothy Jay, professor of psychology at MCLA, the true harm of verbal attacks, and outsiders’ perception of them, relies on context—after all, he argues, verbal aggression is much preferable to physical attacks and can even be a source of catharsis (86-88). Given the situation, Jay describes, aggressive language can be productive, opening up a dialogue and discouraging passive aggressive communication that blocks resolution of conflict. In the context of American politics, however, catharsis and resolution are hardly the goals of using aggressive language. In most cases, it is used to foment future conflict. One cannot afford to appear negatively affected by abusive comments; and in order to affirm this tough-skinned reaction, it is encouraged for victims to deny victimhood by reacting with equal or greater aggression. Incivility, then, invites more incivility, often with increased frequency and exaggerated antagonism. Perhaps if this type of communication were largely frowned upon in the United States, this level of discourse would not be so prevalent. Unfortunately, particularly in this election cycle, speech is frequently considered the remaining arena for disputes and reaffirmation of “tough guy” figures. Ahearn contends, “Power relations are thus deeply embedded within everyday social and linguistic interactions” (264), and these power relations appear when one can speak in “socially valued ways” and leave the Other straggling (271). When the socially valued way of speaking lies in easily recognizable snubs, it is in politicians’ best interests to use them to gain a “profit of distinction” among his or her constituents, regardless of its deleterious effects on political discourse overall. Efficacy of impoliteness, aggression, and general incivility depend not on the person using these tactics but the people receiving them and either discouraging or encouraging their continued use. In the case of this 2016 presidential campaign, and in American political rhetoric in general, this profit of distinction would not be possible without continued receptivity of supporters.

As baffling as it may seem to those currently steeped in this political conflict, it is more likely that the invective evident in this election cycle is not out of the ordinary. While possibly heightened by the sharing of sound bytes over social media, candidates’ linguistic attacks themselves are par for the course, and remain as effective at maintaining division as they had been two centuries ago. As Benson notes, “Civility is always at risk when we talk about things that matter” (27); like it or not, the transgression of civil language may be one of those non-negotiable additions to any political conversation in the United States, provided voters continue to respond positively to such vitriol. The invested political arguments demanded by current standards in the U.S. may never, in fact, be politic.

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