The Modern Politics of Language

By: Lilia Spiro, Essays Editor

The word “populist” has existed in American politics since as early as 1787, when under the leadership of Thomas Jefferson, the Antifederalists waged a political war against the Constitution. Their skepticism of the Federalist elites led to the creation of the Bill of Rights, as well as a robust tradition of American opposition to a centralized government detached from its citizenry.

In the words of Mark D. Brewer in his study “Populism in American Politics,” populism is defined as a political movement that “tends to lionize so-called ordinary people … the noble defenders of a just and appropriate makeup that some group of elites is trying to upend, often through nefarious means.” It is a word that has been attached to political leaders like Andrew Jackson, Huey Long and most recently, President Donald Trump. Populism’s true definition is lost when applied to men with such varied backgrounds and ideologies, replaced by the surface notions and emotions it evokes. By following the well-trodden path of fascism and socialism as well as countless other ideologies that have become devoid of meaning, populism has become a buzzword.

Trump’s campaign strategy ticks off many boxes on the populism checklist. His speeches, filled with insults, ad hominem attacks and vague promises, often speak on behalf of an aggrieved working class whose economic decline can be traced back to the “bad” trade deals made by the “Washington’s elite.” His fury with the influx of illegal immigrants into the United States appeals to populism’s “us versus them” mentality. However, Brewer’s work points to the fact that while in some ways Trump is a textbook populist leader, his refusal to identify with the common man, his own elite status and his approval of centralized rulers like Putin make him as equally as much of an authoritarian leader as a populist.

Populism, however, is the media’s buzzword of choice for Trump, no matter how accurate or inaccurate that may be. The accuracy of this claim is less important than the political and emotional subtext that is associated with the use of the word. For opponents of Trump, the use of “populism” conjures up the words “demagogue” and “huckster,” but for supporters, populism symbolizes the people’s movement and all of the righteousness that implies. It’s no accident that our country’s democracy is made “by the people, for the people,” and to a suffering working class, placing faith in a populist leader like Trump is no different than taking arms against the British. Populism has referred to Thomas Jefferson’s libertarianism and Donald Trump’s authoritarianism, rendering it meaningless and thus the perfect buzzword. It is a word entirely open to interpretation and ideal for academics and journalists to politicize when faced with events as perplexing as Trump’s presidential campaign. Most of all, populism exploits the buzzword’s ability to harness an audience’s emotions and use it against them.

 

Philosopher Jacques Derrida famously stated that “there is nothing outside the text.” Scholar  Stephen Bush explores the concept that language is meaningless without context in his work  “Nothing Outside the Text: Derrida and Brandom on Language and World.” His work acknowledges that although it is difficult to pin down the exact meaning of Derrida’s philosophy, two things can be ascertained: all of the recorded events of our world are interpretations of the truth, and these interpretations are molded by various “political backdrops” and “socio-institutional frameworks.” His philosophy is apropos for the political buzzword. What, if anything, do buzzwords actually mean? And if they do have meaning, do they mean what they should?

First, it would be ironic to discuss the inherent ambiguity of buzzwords without removing the ambiguity from the word itself. Buzzword is defined in Merriam-Webster as “an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen,” with its secondary definition being a “voguish word or phrase.” Both of these denotations are essential to understanding the buzzword, for the buzzword is not a buzzword without both components. For example, the term “anchor baby”caused a scandal when Jeb Bush used it during his presidential campaign because of its timeliness and its inflated meaning. Bush used the term “anchor baby” during a discussion about removing birthright citizenship under the 14th amendment, an issue that has been fiercely debated by Republicans and Democrats alike. The word’s pejorative connotation and racial implications, especially toward Latin American immigrants, raised hackles on both sides, yet not necessarily for the same reasons. In one American’s living room, the buzzword was an insult and an assault on the legitimacy of immigrant children. In the living room of a different American, “anchor baby” was merely another example of the harmful influence caused by the presence of Latin American immigrants in the United States.  

Clearly, buzzwords can inspire volatile reactions from the public, yet they are frequently found in slogans and campaign speeches. The reasoning lies behind two concepts ─ political branding and emotional power. The first, political branding, is a method in which political candidates and parties obtain loyalty by aligning themselves with trademark ideologies, such as, according to German scholar Manuel Adolphsen, a “fixed set of messages and connected emotions.” Adolphsen compares 21st century political tactics to those of corporate branding strategists in his paper “Branding In Political Campaigns: Just A Buzzword or a New Quality of Political Communication?” Just as Nike is inseparable from the company’s iconic “swoosh” logo, so do political parties labor to make their parties inseparable from their trademark platforms. This branding is the reason that the Tea Party emphasizes on their website their ties to the “brave souls of the men and women in 1773” and their “strong belief in the Judeo-Christian values embedded in our great founding documents.” Their very name immediately forces the association of patriotism, courage and revolution so that it becomes difficult to separate the values of the Tea Party from its deliberately crafted brand. The brand becomes a buzzword, a way of reducing opposition to their controversial policies on gun control and federal regulation to anti-patriotic sentiment. After all, how can one argue against the tenet that gun ownership is sacred when it’s one of the “15 Non-Negotiable Core Beliefs” of the Tea Party, the essence of patriotism?

Besides political branding,  politicians utilize buzzwords for their inherent emotional power. One of the primary usages of a word is to express an idea. That is its denotation: it’s exact meaning. The secondary usage, and perhaps the most powerful of the two, is its connotation, used  to create associations so that when we hear a word, we also hear every event, memory and emotion with which we relate it. Buzzwords are so effective because their connotation supersedes their denotation, a fact which the candidates of the 2016 presidential election were well aware of.

On Bernie Sanders’ campaign website, the first message that greets you are the words “this is your movement.” Unlike on the Tea Party website, Sanders does not explicitly lay out the foundations of his “brand,” but they are no less apparent. The word “movement” exists in the upper echelons of ambiguous buzzwords. The exactitudes of the movement that he speaks of, the whys and the whats, are less important than the emotions it invokes in the reader. When they see movement, they think of greatness, of revolutions, of everything in the world they want to change. The word invokes exciting notions of George Washington, Che Guevarra and Robespierre. When “your” is added to the picture, the message becomes incredibly personal. This is about your life, it says. This is about your actions and your future. Whether the reader of this sentence has any idea about the movements that Sanders supports, they are drawn into his narrative because it is designed to feel like their narrative, and thus with a phrase filled with vagaries, loyalty is won.

Sanders doesn’t only use buzzwords on his campaign website, however. He, as well as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, are masters at sprinkling buzzwords into their speech, from stumping to debates. Here the buzzwords become even more powerful, for instead of being little words on a page, they are enhanced with the charisma of the candidates who use them. Sanders’ most repeated phrases in the Democratic debates were “healthcare to all” and “a corrupt campaign finance system.” The message expressed by these phrases, and the political branding they imply, is one of universal equality, as well as a class of people to blame for the universal lack of it. The fact that both of these issues are incredibly nuanced was not addressed. His slogans do not inform us how this universal healthcare is to be achieved and how it will be financed, or whether a regulated campaign system is as corrupting to the First Amendment as an unregulated system is to equal influence. As usual, the substance is of less importance than the emotions we feel when we listen to Sanders speak. One of Hillary’s most repeated phrases was “comprehensive immigration reform on a path to citizenship.” We hear immigration, citizenship and reform, and we think of positive change, but yet again, this sentence has no concrete meaning. It is a phrase designed to inspire hope without promise of deliverance.

Of course, I can’t end this essay without discussing the most relevant buzzword of all. You can find it embroidered on hats, stencilled on t-shirts, painted on signs and shouted at rallies. “Make America Great Again” is the buzzword that won an election. The phrase didn’t even start with Trump. Ronald Reagan, conservative golden boy president, was the first to use the phrase in his  speech at the 1980 Republican Convention. It too is a brand, a political mantel in which Trump cloaks himself to create an aura of the heavenly anointed. After all, if Reagan, a holy man in Republican sectors, said the phrase, then its veracity cannot be disputed. All political buzzwords are based in emotion, but Trump’s beats them all for being a phrase whose only substance is its emotional significance.

If we deconstruct this simple four-word phrase, we find holes in every word. When we think of the word “make,” we think of creating, yet in this sense it is used more similarly to the verb “cause,” yet it doesn’t specify what these methods of causation are. They could be anything from waging war, to raising taxes, to declaring Jan. 11 a national holiday. The important thing is that “make” is not specific, because if it was, that would entail a mandate that needs to be fulfilled.  “America,” too is an empty vessel of a word, since the meaning of America varies between cultures, countries and individuals. Its power lies in its endless interpretations. “Great” is the more dangerous word in the sentence because of its ambiguity. We are left wondering what greatness Trump is referring to, whether it is a utopian society without globalization and foreign competitors, a feat almost impossible without complete isolation, or an America in its golden age of world dominance, whose success was reserved for straight white men.  

When coupled with “make” and “America,” it implies that America isn’t great, that it is a failure, and failure is frightening. The listener will believe anything to rid themselves of this fear, even it means trusting a phrase mired in ambiguity. The addition of “again” brings to mind second changes and renewal, as well as negating the fear-factor of “make America great,” since it implies that although America has gone through a rough patch, another chance for greatness is right around the corner.

“Make America Great Again” is the paradigm of buzzwords. It provokes an intense emotional response in listeners without providing any substance whatsoever, thus perfectly fulfilling its duty. Like the other buzzwords mentioned in this essay, “Make America Great Again” is a cautionary tale. The fate of the next four years of American history was decided by our inability to see beyond our potent emotions to the emptiness of the words that inspired them. Our futures can’t hinge on the same mistake.

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