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