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Democrats and Republicans Speak Different Languages

When asked why they are supporting Donald Trump despite his manifest unfitness for office and his stated opposition to many of the positions they hold dear, many conventional Republicans can only bring themselves to answer in negative terms. If you don’t support Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan recently said, “that basically means you’re going to help elect Hillary Clinton.”

David Frum has described high levels of negative partisanship as one of the “broken guardrails” of American democracy. “Once you’ve convinced yourself that a president of the other party is the very worst possible thing that could befall America, then any nominee of your party—literally no matter who—becomes a lesser evil,” he wrote.

New economic research helps illuminate why this kind of political psychology came to be.

In a new paper, Matthew Gentzkow, Jesse Shapiro, and Matt Taddy (of Stanford, Brown and Microsoft) used computers to analyze the speech patterns of members of Congress from 1873 to 2009. The results were striking: Between the first Congressional term they examined and and the 1989-1990 term, there was only a modest difference between the language used by Republicans and Democrats. The computer could only guess the speaker’s party based on a one minute speech about 55 percent of the time. But “beginning with the congressional election of 1994, partisanship turned sharply upward, with the probability of guessing correctly based on a one-minute speech climbing to 83 percent by the 110th session.” The authors attribute the shift to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” campaign, the Democratic counter-mobilization, and the fragmentation of the media landscape.

According to measures used by other political scientists, America is experiencing a relatively high, but not unprecedented, episode of political polarization. Gentzkow and colleagues come to a different conclusion: In terms of the distinctiveness of speech patterns used by political elites—i.e., “undocumented workers” vs. “illegal immigrants,” “mass shooting” vs. “Islamist terrorism” and “marriage equality” vs. “gay marriage”—America is experiencing an intensifying episode of partisanship without any precedent in the period since the Civil War.

Why does this metric matter? It may be that just looking at voting or media consumption patterns is more meaningful in some contexts. But as the authors point out, “language is also one of the most fundamental cues of group identity, with differences in language or accent producing own-group preferences even in infants and young children.” America’s two parties are transforming into tribes, where showing solidarity for the in-group, and attacking the out-group, is more important than any ideological substance that might be churning beneath the surface. This is a nihilistic and toxic psychology, but it is part of the reason that so many Republicans have knelt before a man whom they know, deep down, holds their principles in contempt.

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  • Gary Hemminger

    This is actually pretty funny. The person that wrote this article does exactly what he is claiming is the problem.

  • Gary Hemminger

    I think it is quite an important thing to know the political leanings of this author. If the author is a Republican then I could accept the thoughtfulness of this article. If the author is a Clinton supporting Democrat, then I believe this article is fundamentally flawed in that the author blatantly performs that same tribalism he is accusing Republicans (and to a smaller extent Democrats) of committing.

  • Anthony

    “In our time, the United States suffers every day of the week because there are now so many marginalized people among us who don’t understand the rules, who don’t think that rules of personal or civil conduct apply to them, who have no notion of self-control.” (Wall Street Journal – No Guardrails)

  • Andrew Allison

    Enough with the “manifest unfitness for office”! If a majority of the voters decide that he’s fit for office, he is, regardless of TAI’s elitist distaste. If you want a candidate who IS manifestly unfit for office, you have one in Hillary (

    • GS

      Correct. Besides, nobody is “fit”, and least of all obaa. Considering the responsibilities of that office and the magnitude of the information flow there, nobody human could “fit” into it – digesting all that info and then coming to a considered decision based on it would take many more hours than what could be squeezed into any working day.

      • Tom

        At which point, “fitness for office” means “accepts that the main role is delegation.”

        • GS

          No. Fitness for office becomes having the right gut instincts, because the incumbent will be forced to operate by them.

        • Jim__L

          Someone who is a better speechwriter than his speechwriters, a better campaign manager than his campaign managers, etc etc?

  • vepxistqaosani

    So, what we’ve learned here is that Democrats are far more likely to used the politically correct language endorsed and enforced by the Left.

    Who’da thunk it?

    • Jim__L

      While Republicans call things what they are… Or at least what they were until 15 minutes ago.

  • Angel Martin

    “manifest unfitness for office” vs “refreshing candor and speaking up for the ignored and ridiculed”

    A writer sets out to write a piece about how dueling vocabularies identify and divide the electorate, and contribute to poisonous political polarization.

    But while writing, he loses all sense of irony, and finishes the article in the first person.

    • Beauceron

      Yeah, well– sort of encapsulates one of the major problems with our media and academia into one.

      I am not a Trump fan. Didn’t vote for him in the primaries, will likely vote third party in November. But how one can decide Trump is not fit for office and then turn around and vote for Hillary Clinton is just mind boggling to me.

      I am find with finding Trump unfit for office, but by no reasonable standard your using to determine fitness could you then turn around and declare her fit.

  • Fat_Man

    When I was an undergraduate in a previous millennium, political science professors bemoaned the lack of a sharp ideological divide between the parties. Now that they have what they wanted, they bemoan the partisanship. You just can’t make some people happy.

    • Observe&Report

      There is an ideal middle ground which is sorely lacking at present: a sufficiently large divide between how the two parties think the country should operate such that voters have a coherent choice between two viable alternatives, but not so large a divide that irreconcilable, partisan differences undermine the system’s ability to function.

    • QET

      Well, I don’t think there IS a sharp divide between the parties, which is the very reason Trump has been nominated. He certainly was not nominated by “the GOP” but rather by its voters plus all those voters allowed (as in my state) to vote in a party primary without having to be members of the party. Look for the GOP to introduce superdelegates soon.

  • Pete

    Donald Trump has manifest unfitness to be president.

    What boob wrote that dribble. Was it you, Mead, you who supported B. Hussein Obama, a two-bit community organizer from Chicago for the presidency?

  • Anthony

    Here’s a definite connection to TAI’s thrust but Trump’s relevance comes at end of analysis:

  • Frank Natoli

    Democrats and Republicans want not just different but antithetical Americas. The polarization is a natural consequence. That fact that one group wants an America whose government is limited to the authority granted in the Constitution, and that the other group insists the Constitution can be “interpreted” to permit the government to do anything anytime to anybody, is apparently irrelevant to this TAI author.

    • Jim__L

      The Democrats, by centralizing so much power and using the Federal Government to enforce social mores on pain of fines and imprisonment, have produced a winner-takes-all situation that has made polarization inevitable.

      The ghastly irony here is it’s all in the name of “tolerance”.

  • Arkeygeezer

    There are nationalist tribes and internationalist (globalist) tribes.
    There are socialist (big government) tribes and capitalist (libertarian) tribes.
    Our system of government requires that we only have one choice between two candidates every 4 years.
    This year the choice is between Nationalist-Capitalist (Trump), and Socialist-internationalist (Clinton) factions.
    Legislators and executive candidates at the national, state, and local level will be part of one or the other faction.
    It doesn’t matter who is the standard bearer for each faction as long as they are a citizen of the United States and over the age of 35 years, but it helps if they have some money and are out of jail.

  • Boritz

    TAI continues to write about Trump as if he put national security at risk for selfish reasons and in the aftermath of being caught proceeded, with lots of help, to corrupt the bedrock legal principle for a healthy republic of equality before the law.  He hasn’t done any of that.

  • QET

    Once again, TAI conveniently ignores that the present polarization is entirely the responsibility of the Left, and that Trump is merely the most strident–to date–reaction against the Left’s increasingly despotic behavior, now that it has finally, after a campaign of 40+ years, gotten control over the federal bureaucracy (the “deep state” as some call it), all US educational institutions from Pre-K through PhD (with a trivial number of exceptions), and all major media (NYT, WaPo, CNN) (again, with only a trivial number of exceptions). The Gleichschaltung has accelerated and the disguises removed as no longer necessary. Any and all resistance to the Left’s diktat–even mere questioning of it–is met immediately and forcefully with accusation and denunciation from all redoubts of the Left. The East Germans would have been so proud.

    And TAI herein evinces another kind of error that is prevalent among the Left and has greatly aided their takeover of this country. I mean the intellectual abasement before a computer that acted on instructions provided by human beings and therefore was predisposed to “find” what it had been designed to look for. And the findings–different locutions by the two sides–are not self-explanatory. In fact, any significance they might have is entirely a function of how they are explained, which explanations of course could be submitted to the computer’s algorithm, and so on ad infinitum. In this way the Left imagines it has attained knowledge, “evidence,” “data,” on the basis of which it justifies its despotism to itself and to the rest of the country.

    The current “polarization” is just the Right’s attempt to defend traditional Western and, more specifically, American traditions and political values, and the Left regards any such resolute standing up for what one believes as an affront and an outrage to be crushed. Trump is seriously flawed as a Presidential candidate, yes, and a year ago was almost nobody’s preferred choice. But nobody, or nearly nobody, imagines they are voting for him to become leader of any tribe to which they feel they belong. Like Ralph, Piggy and the rest, the Right has had to tribalize at least outwardly merely in in order to defend itself against the predations of Jack and his Hunters of the Left.

  • Anthony

    As an illustration, author of Democrats and Republicans…appears prescient (Res ipsa loquitur) as one notes running commentary – instantaneous proposition affirmation (with concomitant rationalization).

  • stephen barron

    It is not only Trump that holds my views in (only apparent) contempt, and is not even willing to pay lip service to them. Liberty (not libertine), property rights, and equality before the law are all anathema to today’s Democrat party.

  • seattleoutcast

    1994–Funny, that’s roughly the beginning of the Boomer takeover of our government. (1992 was the actual year.)

  • RedWell

    These are economists. This type of quantification is old news among political scientists. For example:

  • CosmotKat

    I think this column is an example of academics wandering in the dark trying to apply their insulated thinking to the greater society and missing the mark badly. A statement like this:”When asked why they are supporting Donald Trump despite his manifest unfitness for office”
    Is a clue and it goes down from there.

  • Jim__L

    An American’s way of speaking absolutely classified him.
    The moment he talks, he makes some other special group despise him.

    It was ever so.

  • MarkM

    I would disagree with the conclusion reached here. It isn’t that the American people are breaking into two tribes. It is that one side (Democrats) are taking seriously a number of “politically correct” notions about how one should be speaking about various issues and communities. (I’m defining “politically correct” as deliberately choosing to use language which is designed not offend or disadvantage any person who is a member of a “historically oppressed” group.)

    Flip side, the Republicans are fighting back against the PC movement, comparing it to the Orwellian Newspeak from one of his most significant novels, 1984. At least in the US, “Undocumented workers”, by definition, (a) are immigrants from another country and (b) either did not enter the United States legally or overstayed their visa. As such, “undocumented workers” are generally the same group that we used to call “illegal aliens” or “illegal immigrants” – although I’m sure not all illegal aliens or immigrants have a job so that they would be considered “workers”.

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