Nearly three decades ago, legal scholar and former U.S. Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon identified a big problem with our politics: the way we talk about them. Noting in 1991’s Rights Talk that “cynicism, indifference, and ignorance concerning government appear to be pervasive,” she worried that it was becoming “increasingly difficult to define critical questions, let alone debate and resolve them.” One principal reason, she argued, was our political language—a distinctly American dialect noteworthy for “its starkness and simplicity, its prodigality in bestowing the [individual] rights label, its legalistic character, its exaggerated absoluteness, its hyper-individualism, its insularity, and its silence with respect to personal, civic, and collective responsibilities.” Because of the powerful channeling effect careless language has on thought, Glendon soberly wondered whether American leaders had the will, ability, or imagination to speak candidly, moderately, and in complex terms about the shared public challenges we face.
The problem Glendon identified 27 years ago has since undergone a metamorphosis, and its evolution in some ways explains the wide divergence of opinion regarding our current President, as well routine discontent with other branches and perhaps all levels of government. Today, a sense of helpless frustration and moral panic abounds—one that is despairing in tone, and, in its ugliest form, resembles hatred. Our politics certainly haven’t improved since 1991. One reason is that the words citizens and government officials deploy to describe and participate in public affairs remain redolent, as Glendon put it, with starkness and simplicity, absoluteness, insularity, and silence with respect to responsibilities.
“Rights” are still very much en vogue, but new ones have appeared since 1991. In the Left’s identity politics, the concept of rights is weaponized to wage social campaigns that, according to its standard simplified narrative, “really” boil down to discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. Conservatives are not immune either: The rights of white working class voters, or the rights of corporations to hire, fire, and automate, are narratively invoked and often pitted against or paired with, for example, the needs of minorities and immigrants to make a living.
Few serious observers like what they see. Mark Lilla laments in his recent book, The Once and Future Liberal, that the Left’s political ethos is now one in which “those issues that don’t touch on [a person’s individual] identity are not even perceived. Nor are the people affected by them.” Political interests, according to Lilla, are insipidly self-centered and far too narrowly circumscribed—in other words, there’s a “silence with respect to personal, civic, and collective responsibilities.”
But it’s not just “rights” that remain a problem. As Glendon pointed out, political rhetoric is often framed in absolute terms: It’s my way or the highway, “the winner takes all and the loser has to get out of town. The conversation is over.” Specific contexts reinforce this intractability—with the Masterpiece Cakeshop case recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court being a recent example. Whatever one’s views on religious freedom and state-sanctioned marriage between individuals of the same sex, the eventual judicial outcome will be a rather Pyrrhic victory for the winning side. Courts are not particularly well suited to persuade non-litigants, much less resolve strongly held, extra-legal differences in values. When it comes to a Christian baker’s refusal to provide a cake for a same-sex ceremony, competing visions of history, morality, and human intimacy are implicated—making genuine public discussion difficult, and court opinions imperfect conduits for it. As Greg Weiner noted in the Washington Post, when the Supreme Court ultimately decides the case in favor of petitioner or respondent, it won’t change the fact that, in some deeper sense, “everybody loses.”
And so it goes in endless arguments regarding presidential comportment, too—which now seems like the only topic people talk about, ever, at least in Washington. There’s much moral peacocking on both sides, but, again, no one really “wins.” Public controversy often stems from our current President’s words, which citizens interpret as revealing his character: one that’s either authentically pugnacious or corruptly vulgarian, depending on whom you ask. Those words, though, deserve a closer look and suggest that the present officeholder’s rhetorical style is part and parcel of broader cultural trends.
For the sake of analysis, categories help. There appear to be three kinds of presidential speech that have elicited outrage—two relate to specific content, while the third is a general mode of speaking.
First is the so-called locker-room talk, sexually explicit banter regarding women. The infamous Access Hollywood recording dates back to 2005, long before the current executive was in office. But the topic of sexual impropriety, of course, has reared its ugly head amid the wave of payoff and assault allegations sweeping Washington, Hollywood, the news media, the fashion industry, Olympic sports, the tech elite, and America writ large. There has been much criticism of the President, and much praise of victims willing to come forward and unmask the Lotharios and abusers in positions of power. But even with all this testimony and scorn, our national conversation feels lacking.
Enter Glendon, who in Rights Talk repeatedly drew attention to what she deemed to be our country’s “near-aphasia regarding responsibilities.” This aphasia has never been properly treated and is the reason why the #MeToo movement may be unable—acting on its own—to fix the problems it has exposed. In public discourse today, sexual liberty is frequently claimed or demanded as a fundamental right in a variety of contexts. But the only talk about duty or responsibility hovers around the need to obtain “consent” before embarking upon sexual activity—a term of which, if a recent New York Times exposé of college students is any indication, no one is quite sure about the meaning.
When it comes to individual decision-making, a cultural overemphasis on sexual liberty (at the expense of responsibility) may inadvertently facilitate sexual license. And it is precisely that blurred boundary, along with our reverence for privacy (the “right to be let alone”), that for years impeded our ability to condemn any kind of over-the-top sexual behavior. Hopefully we’ve made some progress in recent months. But lacking a sufficiently developed, widely agreed-upon language regarding responsibility in sexual interactions, it’s hard to see how we’ll make much more. Without that language, people often end up tongue-tied, confused, pressured, hurt, and emotionally scarred.
Perhaps a wiser politics can play a role in teaching people such a language. But it certainly won’t be as easy as electing a new President with a less checkered past. Indeed, reaching some modest consensus will remain difficult so long as public conversation fails to account for certain aspects of culture. As Mark Regnerus points out in Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy, dating apps, the widespread availability of online pornography, rising incomes among certain demographics, and evolving social norms have reshaped the pairing and mating “market” into one in which sex in many cases is cheap and transactional. When seriousness and social ramifications no longer attach to personal conduct, when American culture preaches a hedonist gospel and relationships matter mostly insofar as they provide physical and emotional satisfaction to individual parties, our talk will continue to reflect this debased attitude about what is, after all, a matter of love.
And politics will ineluctably reflect this talk, as the public officeholders who have recently resigned in disgrace clearly show. For those of us who grew up during the Clinton-Lewinsky years, it has kind of “always” been this way. Politics has never seemed particularly pure, so recent accusations are not as shocking, perhaps, as they should be. That’s why sex-related criticism directed at the President rings a little hollow; he’s just a stand-in for what have been persistent concerns.
There’s a second type of political language that seems markedly different from the time of Glendon’s writing of Rights Talk. This one is more intentional than coarseness caught-on-camera: It’s the President’s name-calling, the insults and insinuations lobbed on air (or online) regarding core democratic institutions, foreign dignitaries and nations, and occasionally members of his own party.
There are reasons to find such statements at turns funny, warranted, inappropriate, and appalling. There’s also a serious concern, identified by Harvard Law professor Jack Goldsmith in the pages of The Atlantic, that the President’s legacy could well be one of norm-breaking—in essence, de-legitimizing the Executive Branch in the minds of the American citizenry, which becomes accustomed to the leader of the Free World running roughshod over traditions and decorum. Nevertheless, as with the social media issues discussed above, the name-calling problem is more widespread than the White House. The real issue is a blurring of lines: What used to be private, insider talk has now become public.
Anyone who has worked in Washington (or in politics on the state and local level) will tell you that, while public service can at times feel like a noble calling, some government employees are jaded. Some also curse a whole lot. As in almost any job, gossip is ubiquitous. Anyone who doesn’t join in the fun risks being written off as a prig or wimp. These days, casual slights are often offered behind the scenes by the same people who excoriate the President for his name-calling. It’s as if we’re all saying, “It’s okay when we do it, but not when you do it.”
That’s understandable: The President holds high office and so must be held to a high standard. He influences impressionable youth. In global diplomatic missions, he represents not only himself but the entire nation. Nevertheless, it is incontrovertible that his occasional words resemble things that have long been uttered both within and beyond the Beltway—and therein lies part of his appeal. He speaks to us in our own language, and his barbs are a rejection of the anodyne script that, at least up until the 2016 election campaign, was rote in politics. In other words, to many he seems authentic, and his detractors seem wooden, false, and dissembling.
Sometimes because of time constraints, and other times because political officials are risk averse, they must choose messages that are tried and true rather than ones that are new, unique, and risk rocking the boat. Because of the ever-lurking “gotcha” media, it’s almost never advisable to admit uncertainty or weaknesses in one’s policy positions. Decision-making about what to say on a particular issue, and how to say it, is delicate because so many eyes are watching, negotiations are often ongoing, and available routes to satisfactory outcomes are multiple. Ideas have to be “socialized,” or auditioned, before they’re formally introduced. Messages are polled. Complex negotiations must be summarized in talking points. Shorthand and acronyms in various forms of communication are common, as are stock phrases.
Thus, part of the President’s appeal may be that even if he’s a cantankerous New Yorker, his supporters feel that he’s someone we recognize. Unpolished, sure, but with a seemingly unselfconscious sense of humor—like an overserved uncle at a family gathering: likeable to many even after he clearly crosses the line. At least, his supporters claim, he plays offense, instead of just defense, with his words. At least who he is in public seems a lot like who we suppose him to be in private. If his good guys/bad guys narratives are contrived, at least he’s willing to box a little bit. The fact that he doesn’t always tailor his speech to formal, staged public settings has gotten the President in trouble, but it’s also what many people secretly enjoy.
Last but certainly not least is the President’s Twitter account. It illustrates perhaps the most prominent feature of our political discourse that has changed since Rights Talk was first printed: our communicative means, the public way in which citizens and politicians make their points.
Social media outlets online have revolutionized the practice of politics and, at least among certain demographics, have supplanted town-halls and television as the primary avenues by which we receive, evaluate, and share political information. As many others have noted, the President’s tweets reflects an impulse to bypass news media middlemen and communicate directly with voters on his own terms. He frequently uses ALL CAPS to drive home his point, and he condemns news outlets perceived—rightly or wrongly—as mischaracterizing Executive Branch actions, distorting the content of legislation or policy documents, and maligning government officials’ true purpose or intent.
Then comes the quick response by the rest of us. Our hot takes are spurred by news outlets which—to borrow terms coined by Matthew Crawford in The World Beyond Your Head—are hell-bent on colonizing our “attentional commons,” and hijacking our “right to not be addressed.” They never let us go. We’re inundated with information daily and even hourly, and the fractured media market, in conjunction with cleverly designed algorithms, cause us to see and read some stories but not most others. And the things we do see are often short, simplified accounts, written with click-bait headlines framed to highlight, exaggerate, and exacerbate discord in order to sell. (Media outlets don’t just report facts, after all; they also create narrative arcs.) In this way, journalism—as disseminated on social media—veers toward tabloidism and unalloyed gossip, and we (along with the President) are tempted to respond in the same sort of debased argot: Politics becomes National Enquirer-speak.
Here’s an example: In a typical Facebook post, an Ivy League-educated acquaintance of mine we’ll call Clueless, recently responded to news about the GOP’s tax reform package. In the post (which included a linked article and picture), Clueless called the Senate Majority Leader “McTurtle,” and in comments below, friends insinuated a need to break the neck of this elected official—who happens to be a survivor of polio and triple-bypass heart surgery. The online interaction between a few dozen parties wasn’t meant to be profound. It signified nothing more than virtual high-fiving—just a little bonding-through-insults, poking fun at a white male’s aging anatomy—par for the swampy course. No big deal, right?
Maybe. But even if one assumes that the violence urged was crass and ironic rather than in earnest, indulging in this coarsening of political language nevertheless has consequences. It protects people’s sense of self-righteousness and inoculates their political allegiances and orthodoxies from any real outside scrutiny. It also evades genuine discussions of the issues—in this case tax policy, the complexities of which entail a high level of technical detail, competing priorities, large personalities, and legal and budgetary restraints.
I’m deliberately choosing an example that doesn’t involve the President in order to show the social media problem is greater than “just” him. When we’re frustrated with political figures, we—Republicans, Democrats, and all those in between—share in the culpability. We often feel comfortable responding to limited amounts of information by assuming the worst and then transmitting this doomsdayism to others, fostering the same controversy and cynicism we simultaneously claim to deride in others.
That doesn’t mean the President is off the hook, necessarily—certainly, there’s no moral carte blanche for the POTUS on Twitter. But it does mean we’re sometimes complicit in what’s largely a modern-day speech problem. We’re complicit when our responses to what we perceive to be politically inappropriate are themselves petty, inaccurate, uninformed, or worse.
Our overall situation—let’s call it Rights Talk 2.0—therefore is this: Cheap sex, casual slights, and social media have infiltrated our politics, and our discourse reflects that reality. People across the country intuitively recognize this and rightly fret over it. The public scratches and shakes its head, as it sees and hears “how bad” our situation is over and over again. The press wonders why elected officials are ignoring “the problem(s),” why they’re holding back explanations and verbal censure of the President. Commentators go further still. Rod Dreher wonders why anyone would ever want to work in Washington. David Brooks contends the GOP is “rotting” and “doing harm to every cause it purports to serve.”
Almost three decades after Rights Talk, our political speech problem is worse than ever. Ambassador Glendon, who will turn 80 years old in October, would not be surprised, for she herself was not naive enough to think that there was some abracadabra fix for the problems she described. Part of the thorniness, as fleshed out above, is attributable to the fact that political disorders often reflect deeper, cultural ones. One more complicating factor is that the people we look to for inspiration—public officials—do not always have the luxury of time that thoughtfulness often requires. They always face a multitude of detailed, competing considerations: a constant barrage of emails, long meetings and complicated strategy sessions, angry calls and letters from constituents with a myriad of intelligible and unintelligible concerns, personalities that must be managed inside and across offices, tenuous alliances, difficult tradeoffs involving conflicting principles, extensive travel, frequent fundraising and campaigning for reelection, the reading and study of difficult subject matter, occasional interviews and constant press hounding, speeches, shaking hands, and, of course, the core job of drafting, amending, and voting on legislation. And then there are family and personal obligations on top of all that.
Finally, there’s the issue of context—the settings and venues where political rhetoric is being offered. Rarely if ever does context afford public figures the opportunity to offer sociological critiques or philosophically grounded arguments. Their audience is just too wide, and the allotted time too brief, for that sort of thing. “Like the basic patter we routinely deploy in dealing with strangers,” Glendon noted in Rights Talk, “political speech has to be intelligible to a wide assortment of individuals who increasingly share few referents in the form of common customs, literature, religion, or history” (my emphasis).
In hindsight, that last phrase seems prophetic, for it is precisely the lack of common “referents” that the Age of Trump has so damningly exposed. If this sounds really bad, that’s because it is. But maybe the fact that our national fissures are now erupting tells us something. Maybe it’s a sign we’re waking up, not cracking up. For political regeneration to occur, as George Orwell once wrote, the first step is to think clearly—or at least notice closely. It’s only then that we can talk carefully, hoping that someone out there is listening.
In politics, words can be dangerous. Even when they’re not taken out of context or misconstrued deliberately, they have the potential to trick and confuse people into believing that matters are far simpler—far better, perhaps, or far worse—than they really are. Care and precision are how we push back against both ignorance and indolence. Again, Orwell put it best: “The worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.”