Barton Swaim is the author of “The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics.”
Activists dressed as robots have made their way from New Hampshire to South Carolina, where I live, for the purpose of lampooning Marco Rubio. He performed poorly during the first part of the Feb. 6 Republican presidential debate, when he tried to answer criticism of his inexperience by enunciating the same talking point four times, sounding more like a malfunctioning machine with each repetition. Now he can only hope the jokes will get old quickly — the robot costumes, the verbatim repetition of anything said about him, the “Marcobot” nickname.
Coverage of Rubio’s howler has, to my mind, been vastly overdone (the episode did not reflect poorly on his judgment, his character or even his abilities), but it touches on a suspicion most of us have entertained about our politicians: that they use words mindlessly. Probably all of us who follow politics sometimes feel that the whole business is nothing but drivel and fakery — that politicians are emitting vacuous jargon, their key phrases repeated again and again with apparently no concern for accuracy or feasibility or coherence.
Amplifying that suspicion, a computer scientist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has created an artificial-intelligence program that generates meaningless political verbiage on its own. I don’t pretend to know how he’s done it — the study looks like a lot of complicated algorithms, and, being a writer, I have only the faintest idea of what an algorithm is — but his invention has produced copy that’s more or less grammatically correct and sounds more or less like what a modern American politician would say.
And, of course, it’s all nonsense. The input data consists of words uttered on the floor of the House of Representatives (the phrase “I yield the balance of my time” occurs frequently), but the words are placed into new arrangements to form original copy. Taking a passage at random: “Sometimes I think the way we look at these medical issues, instead of looking at the cost savings involved with prevention, we simply are able to look at how much it saves in the long run.”
Why do politicians use language in this way? Is it deliberate? Do they not know how irritating it is, how fraudulent they sound?
We long for them to speak to us plainly and directly, as they would speak to a friend. But they can’t use language in that way, because they aren’t speaking to a friend. They’re speaking to hundreds of thousands or, in the case of presidential candidates, millions of people with widely varying interests and opinions.
Not only that: They also have to consider hostile opponents ready to pounce on even the slightest injudicious phrase and gaggles of reporters determined to second-guess all their pronouncements. Who, amid all these deterrents to clarity, would dare to speak plainly? If politicians used the unguarded language we want to hear from them, they would lose elections.
This is what gives political discourse that distinctive air of unreality. Its language isn’t intended to persuade as you and I would try to persuade each other; it’s intended to convey impressions and project images and so arouse the sympathies of voters. The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s bleak description of politics (in a 1939 essay titled “The Claims of Politics”) captures the essence of the political sphere and its madcap discourse: “A limitation of view, which appears so clear and practical, but which amounts to little more than a mental fog, is inseparable from political activity. A mind fixed and callous to all subtle distinctions, emotional and intellectual habits become bogus from repetition and lack of examination, unreal loyalties, delusive aims, false significances are what political action involves. . . . The spiritual callousness involved in political action belongs to its character, and follows from the nature of what can be achieved politically.”
Donald Trump, notoriously, doesn’t sound like other politicians. In a sense, though, he has intensified rather than changed our political discourse: He’s made it more, not less, bizarre and inhuman. What seems to make him attractive to his supporters is not the content of his language — there isn’t much — but the attitude conveyed by it through a variety of hammer-like phrases: “We don’t have victories anymore,” “We’re gonna build a wall,” “We’re being led by stupid people” and so on.
If the nature of politics makes it vaguely but consistently ludicrous, its practical execution makes it more so. I’m thinking of the way politicos rely on metaphors and other figures of speech long made meaningless by overuse. Quoting another random passage from the University of Massachusetts study: “Supporting this rule and supporting this bill is good for small business. It is great for American small business, for Main Street, for jobs creation.”
That use of “Main Street” — usually in contrast with “Wall Street” — caught on a few years ago and has only just started to let up. It seems to signify heartland values together with bold American entrepreneurship, but who knows what it really means? And “jobs” or “job creation” is among the most frequently abused terms in current American politics. In the 1990s, when politicians wanted to preempt criticism of a bill or proposal, they would say it was about “education.” Now, among both Democrats and Republicans, it’s about “jobs” and “job creation.”
The lexicon of overused expressions currently includes “step in the right direction,” “have a serious conversation,” “existential threat,” “level playing field,” “skin in the game” and many others. More permanent and serious entries include “economic development,” “the American people deserve better” and all kinds of “reform” — “tax reform,” “health-care reform.”
Most politicians tend to overestimate their own articulacy as they enter public life, so when they discover how often they’ll be required to speak — interviews, party addresses, ribbon-cuttings, convocations — they don’t try harder to improve on their expressive gifts but instead rely more and more on whatever clumsy cant they hear from their ideological co-belligerents. Meanwhile the natural tendency toward repetitiousness, aggravated by the fear of being portrayed as inconsistent or a “flip flopper,” becomes a mania, and suddenly every statement must be identical with previous statements, each new one prefaced with “I’ve been saying from the beginning” or “I’ve said since Day One.”
Some politicos are worse than others, but even the gifted talkers draw on a collection of these nebulous terms anytime they’re stumped for the right words or just too lazy to come up with fresh language. President Obama, for instance, as Chris Scalia observed this past week in USA Today, can’t stop saying “That’s not who we are” anytime he disapproves of a policy or opinion. A few years ago, a Danish TV host noted that Obama habitually declares that any small country whose premier he happens to be hosting “punches above its weight.”
Maybe politicians and political offices will one day rely on robots to generate their rhetoric. But I don’t see how a machine could make democratic politics any more bogus, more prone to preposterous unintentional comedy — or indeed more weirdly beautiful — than it already is.