Unhinged political rhetoric is top of mind for most of the public, especially when attacks on the Capitol or the husband of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hit the headlines. Yet while political pundits have deemed such rhetoric countless times unprecedented, historically, only a few have been.
Incendiary rhetoric goes back to the Greek and Roman democracies, and it’s just “the nature of politics,” said Tobe Berkowitz, a professor emeritus at Boston University and a longtime media consultant.
“Back to before the Civil War,” he said. “I mean, my gosh, the politics, the insults, the attacks are more personal and vicious than what you see today.”
Political rhetoric is the art of persuasion using language designed to influence public opinion. However, this language is carefully curated and comes with what the cognitive linguist George Lakoff calls a “frame”, which greatly influences political debate.
Lakoff describes frames as “mental structures that shape the way we see the world,” which politicians can use to lure or entrap people into their perspective.
“Framing is making language fit your worldview,” Lakoff said in an excerpt from his 2004 book, “Don’t Think Elephants!” “It’s not just language. Ideas are primary, and language carries those ideas, evokes them.”
When Lakoff wrote the book, he argued that Republicans had an advantage in structuring because of their “information discipline.” In the era of Donald Trump, that’s no longer the case, and Republicans have no choice but to “get dragged along,” Berkowitz said.
When it comes to achieving the goals Trump has set for himself, Berkowitz believes the former president has “brilliant rhetoric,” using effective rhetorical devices to create phrases that enter society’s vernacular, such as “build the wall.” Or “Chinese Virus” or “Dodgy Hillary” – the list goes on.
“Other politicians are much more sophisticated: this is the main difference [between them and Donald Trump]”When you see Joe Biden, Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, they use inflammatory rhetoric, but they do it with a lot more grace,” Berkowitz said. “
“I’m not saying that all things are equal…I mean that some things are more reprehensible than others. But if you look at the political strategy, both sides have the exact same goal, and that’s using our rhetoric to set the agenda,” he added. “Bad rhetoric is bad for democracy, but it’s been a part of democracy since the Greeks.”
By repeating rehearsed talking points and combining them with subtlety, politicians can create what Emerson College professor Gregory Payne calls “a mediated reality that doesn’t always match reality. But if [politicians] People can be made to believe it, and then it becomes reality. “
Once this augmented reality is in place, Payne said, politicians could use “triggers” to target specific groups to intimidate people, though tactics vary by party.
“Part of the whole thing is a party that tends to be more, as I call it, hopeful and [asks] “How can we move forward?” And the other side is often more terrified,” Payne said. “So you scare people into submission. “
In response to Republicans using emotional and veiled language to intimidate the masses, Democrats have pushed to regulate the language and create a “safe space” where people can identify anyone at will. But adding new aspects of the language to make things more inclusive can add fuel to an already dangerous fire, and Payne said this continued push for anti-racist language could damage the left’s platform and its unity .
“I think what happened is that in order to become so progressive, we gave a new generation [the ability] to name these things,” Payne said. “You can do that, but you create a divide between people who might be on your side.when you go that far [to one side]you take the man in the middle.
A striking example of this divergence is the use of the term “Latinx”. Despite its frequent use in academia and progressive movements, many in the communities to which the term applies dislike — or actively avoid — using it at all. Still, almost every Democrat will stick with language that is now considered inclusive.
“There’s a certain irony to that, isn’t there? You go to a college campus, and that’s popular,” Berkowitz said. “But part of the problem is that both parties have elected officials who really don’t understand the lives of their constituents. Good politicians are able to successfully connect because they maintain some sort of rhetorical connection to the people they represent.”
That rhetorical connection cannot exist without proper language, which Payne says is the most important aspect of politics and can be seen in any mass movement, from civil rights to women’s liberation to Brazilian elections.
“One of my favorite rhetoricians, Richard Weaver, said that language is an order of action,” he said. “Democracy depends on us being able to find enough common ground across groups to move forward.”
Kana Ruhalter contributed to the Bulletin of the Boston University State House Program.