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Words and the modern candidate

September 27, 2016

The first presidential debate of the 2016 US election took place last night, and the transcripts are worth looking at for what they reveal about how language is used in American politics.

In an era of government expansion and distrust, the word “reform” was used just twice, both times by Clinton in reference to local police reform only. “Rights” were invoked four times, twice to describe the public’s entitlement to see Trump’s tax returns, and once by Trump himself when he opposed gun rights for anyone who had been arbitrarily placed on a government watch list. The fourth instance was the only general use of the word, when Clinton referred to the rights of young men in minority neighborhoods. The phrase “human rights” was not spoken once during the debate, nor was the word “freedom”. Even “free” was used a mere three times, twice to refer to college and once when Clinton was encouraging Trump to release his taxes. And as for “free market”, “liberty”, “individual”, “decriminalize”, “legalize”, “independent”, “reason”, or “logic”, not a single one of those terms appeared in thirty-six pages of text.

By contrast, the way in which both candidates favored antonyms for the above words was so marked as to seem almost jingoistic. To set a pessimistic tone, some variant of the word “lose” was employed thirteen times. “Disaster” showed up in six places, “mess” in seven, and “attack” in eleven. Counterpoint to these was provided by the use of “security” on four occasions and “military” on five. “Law” was called upon seventeen times, during eight of which it was used as part of the phrase “law and order”. “War” or “warfare” was mentioned even more often: nineteen times. “Company” or “corporation” and their variants were repeated thirty-three times. “Community” saw twenty-six uses, and while the singular “person” was only used six times, the plural “people” showed up in sixty-six instances. “America” was appealed to forty-eight different times, and “country” sixty-four.

It is not necessary to read the way in which these words were strung together in order to understand their meaning. Freedom, human rights, and individuals are clearly of little importance to either candidate, while the power to suppress discord in the state and the welfare of the group are paramount for both of them, as evidenced by their hundreds of uses of plurals. But the welfare of the group only as they understand it; democracy, representation, due process, habeas corpus, and republicanism were other terms notably absent from the debate. Apparently the language of political discourse in the United States no longer includes the concepts of inherent rights or limited government. And how can reform, let alone revolution, emerge among a population that has forgotten the very words in which reform and revolution must be expressed?

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