Po­lit­i­cal lan­guage, not Water­gate, to blame for pub­lic dis­trust of govern­ment

The Covington News - - OPINION - SCOTT RAS­MUSSEN COLUM­NIST To find out more about Scott Ras­mussen and read fea­tures by other Cre­ators Syn­di­cate writ­ers and car­toon­ists, visit www.cre­ators.com.

In his weekly col­umn for CNN.com, Ju­lian Zelizer makes a rea­son­able case that “Dis­trust­ful Amer­i­cans still live in age of Water­gate.” In his eyes, this helps ex­plain why the pres­i­dent’s health care law and other ini­tia­tives have en­coun­tered so much re­sis­tance.

The Prince­ton Pro­fes­sor con­cludes, “The worst ef­fect of Water­gate is that it cre­ated a cli­mate where Amer­i­cans fun­da­men­tally don’t trust their govern­ment.” He is right that for­mer Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon’s scan­dal in­dis­putably in­creased pub­lic skep­ti­cism of govern­ment, but the roots of that skep­ti­cism go back much fur­ther and are far deeper.

They were ar­tic­u­lated in a clas­sic 1946 Ge­orge Or­well col­umn on “Pol­i­tics and the English Lan­guage.” Or­well ob­served, “In our time, po­lit­i­cal speech and writ­ing are largely the de­fense of the in­de­fen­si­ble.” As a re­sult, “po­lit­i­cal lan­guage has to con­sist largely of eu­phemism, ques­tion-beg­ging and sheer cloudy vague­ness.” The pur­pose of all this de­cep­tion, Or- well said, is to “make lies sound truth­ful and mur­der re­spectable and to give an ap­pear­ance of so­lid­ity to pure wind.”

Since that time, the lan­guage of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics has drifted fur­ther away from the lan­guage used ev­ery day in Amer­ica. Nixon ex­em­pli­fied the trend. “About Words,” a blog from the Cam­bridge Dic­tio­nar­ies On­line, pub­lished posts last year on the “highly eu­phemistic” words of Water­gate. They went so far as to note how the scan­dal “en­riched our po­lit­i­cal vo­cab­u­lary.”

But Nixon was far from the only politi­cian to use words in a way dif­fer­ent from their use in ev­ery­day English. The most ba­sic ex­am­ple to­day is that when govern­ment grows less than ex­pected, of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton has de­creed that it shall be called a budget cut. This de­ceit has en­abled politi­cians from both par­ties to pose be­fore vot­ers as budget cut­ters while con­tin­u­ing to au­tho­rize more money and power for federal of­fi­cials.

In a na­tion where vot­ers want to trim the federal govern­ment and politi­cians don’t, elected of­fi­cials use po­lit­i­cal lan­guage to de­fend what they can’t de­fend on the cam­paign trail. The of­fi­cial lan­guage makes lies sound truth­ful.

There are many other forms of de­ceit­ful lan­guage em­ployed by of­fi­cial Wash­ing­ton that ob­scure rather than clar­ify. For ex­am­ple, we have a def­i­ni­tion of poverty that of­fi­cially counts many grad stu­dents as liv­ing in poverty. That’s ab­surd. Even worse, the de­lib­er­ate ob­scu­rity of lan­guage makes it harder to quan­tify the real di­men­sions of poverty and de­velop mean­ing­ful so­lu­tions.

This abuse of the English lan­guage for po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage is a key rea­son for dis­trust in govern­ment to­day. Vot­ers hear all the talk­ing points and in­stantly dis­count them. They don’t be­lieve what can­di­dates say on the cam­paign trail or what elected politi­cians say in of­fice.

In a healthy po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, the me­dia could help cor­rect this prob­lem. Politi­cians could speak their own lan­guage but the me­dia would trans­late the rhetoric for people who speak English rather than pol­i­tics. Un­for­tu­nately, we don’t have such a sys­tem to­day. Po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ists speak the lan­guage of politi­cians rather than ev­ery­day English.

The trust prob­lem that Zelizer talks about is real. But it’s not enough to blame Nixon and wish that vot­ers would get over Water­gate. The real prob­lem is that people dis­trust govern­ment be­cause politi­cians play word games to hide the truth.

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