Every political hack — every hack, at least, who has even a mild appreciation for language — knows the value of the passive voice. The passive allows you to say something was done or said or believed without saying who did or said or believed it. The most notorious instance of the passive in politics is, of course, “Mistakes were made” — a phrase that, despite decades of ridicule, public officials still use routinely to admit the existence of wrongdoing without specifying the wrongdoer.
But there are far more creative ways to use it, too. If you want to ridicule a view that nobody holds and thus present yourself as nobler or braver than you are, try “what we’re being asked to believe.” “What we’re being asked to believe is that women are second-class citizens.” Who’s asking you to believe that? Nobody, really; we’re just “being asked” to believe it. Or if you want to give more credibility to a position than it really has — if you want to make it sound like the consensus view when it isn’t — you might call it a “long held” or “long agreed upon” position. Who held it long ago, exactly? Oh, lots of people.
Hillary Clinton took a few shots on Twitter recently when she used the passive voice to condemn the police shooting in Oklahoma of an unarmed black man. “Another unarmed Black man was shot in a police incident.” Saying the man “was shot in a police incident” is rather different from saying “police shot another unarmed black man.” Bernie Sanders also used the passive voice to describe the incident, but he followed it with a prepositional phrase assigning agency to the police: “We’ve seen far too many people, often African Americans, unarmed, shot and killed by police.”
Maybe the most common instance of the passive voice during the 2016 presidential race — certainly the most misleading one, in my view — is the candidates’ use of the word “rigged.”
Donald Trump, of course, has used the word “rigged” relentlessly throughout the election. The Democratic primary was “rigged” against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the justice system was “rigged” in favor of Clinton, and the whole election is likely to be “rigged” somehow. “I’m telling you, November 8,” he said to Sean Hannity, “we’d better be careful, because that election is going to be rigged.”
Saying something is “rigged” allows you to sidestep the question of who did the rigging and how. And so on the question of our upcoming “rigged” election, Trump doesn’t so much explain what he means as restate it: “The voter ID situation has turned out to be a very unfair development. We may have people vote 10 times.” Nothing about who will carry out this fraud, or how.
More honestly intended but just as conceptually incoherent, to my mind, are Sanders’ many claims that the entire economy is “rigged.” For an economy to qualify as “rigged,” somebody had to rig it. Who? And how? The difficulty of answering those questions is the reason, I suspect, Sanders and his ideological compatriots almost always use the verb to rig in its passive adjectival form — it’s just rigged.
Just occasionally he names the riggers, but doesn’t explain how they did the rigging. “It’s called a rigged economy,” he says in one of his ads, “and this is how it works.” You expect him to tell us how the rigging happens, but he only tells us that it happens: “Most new wealth flows to the top one percent. It’s a system held in place by corrupt politics, where Wall Street banks and billionaires buy elections.” So Wall Street banks and billionaires hold the system in place, but how exactly they rig it remains unexplained. Is the evidence that they rigged it the fact that they have a lot of money and people (people like me, incidentally) don’t? In which case, isn’t that a bit like saying the Kansas City Royals rigged the Major League Baseball system on the evidence that they won the World Series?
Passive formulations are everywhere in politics, and I think this is why: The passive affords an illicit privilege — the privilege of saying that something happened without explaining who made it happen and how. It tempts us to make claims we can’t support and arguments that make no sense.
Our language, I guess, is rigged.