‘The nature of politics is to subtract meaning from language’

I can’t say it’s enough to get me to read a book-length memoir by a former speechwriter for former (now disgraced) South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. But after reading Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada’s review of “The Speechwriter” by Barton Swaim, who wrote speeches for Sanford, I couldn’t help passing along two lines that capture some of the difference between straight talk and political talk.

First, from Swaim, on the kind of rhetoric we hear from politicians and their spokesters every day:

“Using vague, slippery or just meaningless language is not the same as lying: it’s not intended to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just to sound like you’re saying something instead of nothing.”

Then, even more depressing, from Lozada:

“The nature of politics is to subtract meaning from language.”

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/10/2015 - 08:48 am.

    Sad, but true…

    And, while politicians have dissembled since time immemorial, the past half-century or so has seen the reluctance to speak honestly grow, if you will, into a situation that brings Orwell’s “doublespeak” to life. All of us have reason to be disappointed as a result.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 07/10/2015 - 11:14 am.

    Saying Something Instead of Nothing

    Back in the 80s, PJ O’Rourke had a good rule of thumb for telling if a political speech was actually saying something: Can you disagree with it? A person could certainly argue that we have something to fear other than fear itself, but who could disagree with vacuous statements like “a strong America is essential?”

  3. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/10/2015 - 11:43 am.


    “The nature of politics is to subtract meaning from language.”

    Aphorisms to the contrary, maybe it’s the nature of politics to add rather than subtract multiple layers of meaning. It seems to me to be often the case, particularly for those who are in the position of communicating to multiple and diverse audience, politicians become adept and communicating multiple levels of meaning at once. They construct sentences and paragraphs which achieve the delicate task of having something for everyone.

    But then we come to Donald Trump whose political prose is largely stripped of irony and ambivalence. The Donald, who doesn’t concern himself with the problems of communicating to diverse audiences, is free tell it how it is, or at least his version of how it is. And now we are beginning to see the consequences of political speech which violates the rules and conventions of how politicians speak to us.

    It should be interesting to see how that plays out.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/10/2015 - 11:43 am.

    What’s worse: the media let them get away with it. When was the last time you saw a news analysis that pointed out emptiness, not simply lies?

  5. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/10/2015 - 12:13 pm.


    Yes doublespeak.

    I am a huge fan of George Orwell. I read his essay “Politics and the English Language” every couple of months or so. But about what frequent rereading has taught me is that between the two, Orwell’s essay is much more about the English language than it is about politics. In the essay, while Orwell is quite eloquent and interesting how to write clearly and simply, he shows no understanding of what political language is and how politicians use it.

  6. Submitted by Hal Davis on 07/10/2015 - 12:21 pm.


    George Orwell pointed this out in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”:

    “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. … political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. … The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

    The full essay is here:


  7. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/10/2015 - 12:54 pm.

    Framing the issue with words defines the limits of the issue


    Why do conservatives appear to be so much better at framing?

    Because they’ve put billions of dollars into it. Over the last 30 years their think tanks have made a heavy investment in ideas and in language. In 1970, [Supreme Court Justice] Lewis Powell wrote a fateful memo to the National Chamber of Commerce saying that all of our best students are becoming anti-business because of the Vietnam War, and that we needed to do something about it. Powell’s agenda included getting wealthy conservatives to set up professorships, setting up institutes on and off campus where intellectuals would write books from a conservative business perspective, and setting up think tanks. He outlined the whole thing in 1970. They set up the Heritage Foundation in 1973, and the Manhattan Institute after that. [There are many others, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute at Stanford, which date from the 1940s.]

    And now, as the New York Times Magazine quoted Paul Weyrich, who started the Heritage Foundation, they have 1,500 conservative radio talk show hosts. They have a huge, very good operation, and they understand their own moral system. They understand what unites conservatives, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas.

    (end quote)

  8. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 07/10/2015 - 01:12 pm.

    Mathematical metaphors

    take you to interesting places!
    If you start with zero meaning (meaningless language) and subtract from it, you would appear to end up with negative meaning.
    This sounds a lot like lying to me.

  9. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/10/2015 - 01:36 pm.

    Why do conservatives appear to be so much better at framing?

    I think it’s because their message is essentially negative, and therefore more comfortably in line with one of the great truths of human nature, that it’s much more difficult to do something than it is to do nothing.

    Consider, for example, the issue of immigration. Without going into much detail, the fact is, immigration is an extremely complex issue on many levels. The moment any politician starts addressing it in substantive but also political terms, things are going to get very complicated. In Orwellian terms, there may even be a little defending of the indefensible happening. Trump and his rhetoric sweep that aside with a clarity that would make Orwell proud. In Orwellian terms, Trump’s language is both clear, and quite possibly sincere, and within limits, quite effective. Does that make it right or desirable?

    Whenever I read Orwell I am struck by what I think of as his implicit assumption of the moral value of clarity. He believed that if people expressed themselves clearly, they would think clearly, and that clear thinking would inevitably lead to the right choices. Is that really true? Is Donald Trump now testing that theory?

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/11/2015 - 08:32 am.

    The Times

    I saw this discussed in this morning’s New York Times. Jeb Bush was basically asked, “Would you carpet bomb ISIS? Here is response as published in the Times:

    “Wow. I would say, first of all, the United States needs to lead, but it needs to lead just as, use another example of where my father played a role, in Operation Desert Storm: The United States led in a coalition that was the whole world, basically, and it was done with an objective. And once the objective was complete, we left. And that’s the way we should do it. There ought to be a clear strategy. It ought to be an approach that brings in as many partners as possible. The objective ought to be the air power of the United States – this is one place where we continue to dominate, and having boots on the ground to be able to identify the targets better, to have cooperation with, in the case of Iraq, with the Iraqi people themselves, to help part of this. If the Iraqi people don’t want this or aren’t willing to, you know, to fight, it’s really hard to imagine a foreign force coming in and creating a permanent solution to this. You have to have the cooperation with the neighborhood as well, so I agree with the sentiment, but I think it has to be with American leadership and cooperation with a lot of other folks.”

    What do we make of this? In Orwellian terms of effective writing? Is he preserving options? Is he subtracting meaning from language? Or perhaps language from meaning?

  11. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 07/12/2015 - 12:06 am.

    The same can be said about “journalist”

    There are many devices that politicians use to impute or subtract meaning.

    These same devices are used by “journalist.” It is called “spin.”

    • Submitted by Hiram Foster on 07/12/2015 - 07:01 am.

      These same devices are used by “journalist.” It is called “spin.”

      But journalists aren’t running for office. But as I am fond of saying, only God is without perspective. Journalists always have to start from somewhere, and if you don’t happen to be at the same place they are, it’s easy, way too easy in fact, to accuse them of bias, or “spin”.

      It’s like in baseball. For the batter, it doesn’t matter whether the pitch has spin or not, it’s still his job to hit it.

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