Language and democracy

In our daily lives, we have learned to filter vast amounts of advertising – including the politician's message.

Ben Waite
20 February 2015
The big society

Is anyone buying the slogans? Flickr/Matt. Some rights reserved.Today, across the western world, politicians are widely distrusted and even despised. The distance between people and their representatives in government is broad and many are simply turning away. Much ink has been spilt in trying to explain this phenomenon, but one issue that is greatly under-studied is the role of language.  Many regard language and communication as little more than a veneer on the true substance of politics: the realms of policy and ideology. I want to argue here, however, that language lies alongside these two as part of the fundamentals of politics and, more urgently, to the functioning of democracy.

In the late nineteenth century, the academic Ferdinand de Saussure revolutionised the study of linguistics, giving it a central role in our understanding of the social world. He suggested that language is characterised by an important schismatic relationship between the “signifier”, the collection of sounds or characters which form a word or sign and the “signified”, the concept or object which appears in the mind as a result. Saussure claimed that this relationship is not fixed, but formed as the result of social interaction. As an everyday example, mentioning the word “football” would conjure up different concepts depending on one’s cultural surroundings, say in Europe versus the United States. The arbitrary and potentially contestable nature of “signs”, in this sense, makes the formation of language and meaning itself something that is political.

Theorists have taken this insight in interesting directions since. Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe have argued that politics is frequently shaped by language. Here, “free-floating signifiers”, or words that can be imbued with a different meanings, are the site of political contest, crucial for asserting ideological dominance. Thus, the term “freedom” was employed in the 20th century in a wide range of emancipatory struggles like the civil rights movement, but later became a clarion call for conservatives like Margaret Thatcher, who preached individual self-realisation in the face of government interference.

Furthermore, language is in many ways responsible for creating social realities. Words are employed to create understandings of social phenomena which can differ and therefore shape thoughts and actions in a variety of ways. Psychologists describe this concept as “framing” and have demonstrated its effect in countless experiments. If an instance of violence such as a public shooting were to occur in London tomorrow, the behaviour of the police, the government and my neighbours would depend heavily on whether the incident was defined as a terrorist attack or of an act of simple criminality. As another example, our attitudes toward welfare are shaped by whether we think of the recipients as “scroungers” and “chavs”, instead of “working-class” or “the poor”. At the most extreme, Orwell’s concept of “Newspeak” warns how dominance over vocabulary and semantics can be a tool for social and ideological control over the downtrodden “proles”.

“News management”

Language affects politics in many respects therefore, but it is arguably most crucial in the functioning of democracy. The ability to suggest, persuade, counter-argue, satirise and the like can only be accomplished by employing language in a way that appeals to other citizens. Today, the majority of the population in many Western nations do not often engage with mainstream politics in an active way, or take an interest in policy dilemmas. This means that the speeches, writings and news clips of politicians constitute the vast majority of their contact with democracy in the day-to-day world. If we say, generously, that 20% of the population have an active interest in political processes and policy, then for the very vast majority, their decision-making in conventional political matters will be shaped overwhelmingly by these forms of communication.

Politicians are certainly aware of this. Language is largely subsumed in the concept of “personality politics”, which has a central role in electoral strategy. Vast amounts of time and effort are spent on cultivating the public images of political leaders and crafting the minutiae of their communications. However, the unfavourable light in which most of them are viewed suggests that something is going very badly wrong. Two key reasons stand out here. The first is the approach to 24-hour news media and the rise of social networks. “News management” is something that all front-line politicians and their teams are very well-versed in. This approach to interviews and public events attempts to bend the short-term news agenda to portray the protagonists in a favourable light and focus on a particular message they want to reinforce. In practice, it tends to involve circumvention of questions, “non-apology apologies”, carefully prepared leaks or blatant band-wagoning in ways that make the politicians seem dishonest or evasive and leave the public mistrustful.

Market societies

The second reason includes within itself the first and is a reflection of the zeitgeist in which we live. Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has argued that in the last thirty or so years, many western states have undergone a transformation from having market economies to becoming market societies, as the market has become the ideal agent for organising not only economic, but political, social and personal activity. A range of entities and activities have been re-shaped according to business principles and, not surprisingly, there has been a growing tendency for political language and communication to appear like marketing or PR activity.

Politicians must “compete” in the “marketplace of ideas”, with the result that politicians attempt to “sell” themselves in a variety of synthetic situations. A photo-opportunity here, a new catchphrase there and a baby-kiss thrown in for good measure are seen as key vote-winners. In the UK, we have heard ad nauseam that “we are all in this together” or that we are living through a “cost of living crisis”, depending on the tribal colour of the speaker.

Psychologically, these communicative techniques are important in pushing a message. The psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe explains that keywords and actions can prompt “a powerful emotional charge, provoking a gut response”, often trumping rational thinking. However, the rejection by voters of the messages such as those above further reflects our existence in a society in thrall to market values. Many people simply view the politician as a self-interested “rational actor”, whose overriding focus is his own gain and that his message has little purpose beyond this goal.

The general public are subjected to vast amounts of advertising in their everyday lives and consequently learn to filter it. The politician’s message, as an act of marketing, can expect to receive as much attention as the generic actress’s telling us about the wonders of some or other laundry detergent. The PR-news management approach to communication today lacks the elegant simplicity of the art of rhetoric studied and practiced by the likes of Aristotle over two thousand years ago. He argued that effective communication relied on making best use of the available means of persuasion, paying careful attention to key issues concerning the audience and the effect of emotions. Though his text may not have a wide following, his approach does have successful practitioners today.

The strength of simple communication

The most obvious are the wide variety of populists from across the political spectrum who have seen a huge rise in their fortunes in the recent past. There are some, like Russell Brand or Beppe Grillo, who reject mainstream politics and its corrupting nature. Separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia have gained momentum. And hard-right organisations like the Front National under Marine Le Pen and UKIP under Nigel Farage have enjoyed electoral success. These individuals or groups have highly disparate ideologies, but are linked by their ability to communicate effectively and connect with the public on matters that are important to them. They have won support by talking frankly about matters of key importance: inequality, corruption in politics, the unresponsiveness of central government or multinational bodies, or the perceived threat to cultural identity posed by immigration. The success by far-right groups in many European nations in employing simple, forthright communication to push the latter issue demonstrates how easily such practices can be employed for illiberal means; in this case stoking hostile feelings towards Muslims and Eastern European migrants.

Mainstream politicians have regularly derided these groups as mere populists, making the term a pejorative. However, the political successes they have achieved not only electorally, but in shaping the political agenda, means that these insurgents are no longer ignored. The key lesson they give is that rationality by itself will not bring political success, however much we may wish it. Whether it is rhetoric or sophistry, language that appeals to latent emotions and values is a powerful tool.

Ed Miliband recently derided the “triviality, superficiality and artificiality” of modern-day politics, citing the need for “principle” to trump “posturing”. Yet he and his peers need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of language and communication beyond their current approach if the mainstream parties are to remain relevant. Language will shape our democracy in the future. It may do so in a direction that embraces the path of humanity, tolerance and pluralism, or one that forges a politics of difference and division. Much will depend on who harnesses it best.

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