The notion that our political language has lost its meaning and substance is not a new one.
Critics of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have emphasized the fact that neither of the candidates ever really mean what they say, and their campaign platforms amount to little more than empty platforms.
They are mostly right. One could argue with these critics when both of the two major candidates for president dispense meaningless slogans like “Stronger Together” (as opposed to “Stronger Apart”?) and “Make America Great Again” (as opposed to making it worse?).
These critics come up short, however, when they claim that we are in uniquely troubling situation because of this development. Indeed, when we think about it more precisely, it can hardly be understood as a development at all.
In his seminal 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell addressed the debasement of our language as it related to the political sphere.
He went so far as to compare politicians to mechanistic drones who take the pulpit and speak for hours but do not actually say much at all:
“The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself,” Orwell remarked.
But that was not even the worst of it, he argued, because while such speech was certainly shameful from an objective standpoint, it was nonetheless “if not indispensable, at any rate favorable to political conformity.”
Baseless political rhetoric, is not unique to our generation, but Nathan Heller argues that it could be leading to a new phenomenon, and he might be onto something.
In his piece published last week in “The New Yorker,” Heller notes that the hollow speech we have just identified has spread from the halls of Congress to the dormitories of colleges and universities and many places in between.
He takes the word “diversity” as his evidence. The concept itself is an important one, and most people would admit that diversity must be valued at least to some extent, but “the word means disparate things to a housing activist, a tech executive and an admissions dean, and they end up talking past one another.”
Similar to the obligatory words like “freedom” and “equality,” “diversity” is starting to become similar to other political issue like crime reduction. We know it needs to happen in some way but we have no idea what we mean when we say that we should be championing “diversity.”
Heller particularly focuses on the ongoing free speech dispute on college campuses, and he points out that while students and professors are frequently on different sides of the debate, they often claim to be standing up for the same values. Everyone did what they knew to be right which was “struggling against the establishment, outside the system … for the people.”
But as the ages-old adage of American politics goes, who are the people? And who gave you the right to speak for them? Further still, what do you even mean when you claim to speak for the people?
All of this nonsense, Heller concludes, culminates in a debate that is so muddled and incoherent that we might as well not even have it.
Rather than address the issue and develop a platform that is not just empty words and slogans, “many of us quietly give up: our self-description becomes our identity, and our community is the people who appear to understand our language, more or less, the way we do.”
This capitulation, as Heller reasons, can partly be explained by the fact that universities can be fairly self-righteous when it comes to claiming to be the epitome of diversity itself.
Colleges and universities imagine themselves as microcosms of diversity, he writes, “but they’re only shards; their notions of diversity, intellectual and otherwise, aren’t even wan reflections of the real diversity in the world,” and they likely never will be able to fully encapsulate diversity if the word is understood to mean all races, genders, national origins, viewpoints and so on.
“The only truly public sphere is the public sphere itself,” he contends.
Heller is right, but he does a relatively poor job at offering any solution to the problem he identifies.
Since we cannot reasonably have arguments in which opposing sides claim the exact same values and principles, it would seem that one or both of the sides needs to take on new stances.
In his challenging new book, “The Fractured Republic,” Yuval Levin describes what conservatives, liberals and everyone in between can do to ensure a better future for our country, and one of the topics he discusses at length is the belief that today we live in an age of “radical individualism.”
Admonishing the left for its hapless embrace of identity politics, Levin argues that the contemporary liberal platform has morphed into nothing more than recycled social and economic policies of the past.
To be sure, Levin is quite wrong in this analysis. But what he does get right is that unchecked expressions of individualism have become toxic to the political process.
What is even more revelatory, though, is that this radical individualism is a shockingly bipartisan endeavor whether it is supporters of Donald Trump who adopt what is basically a platform of white identity politics, or supporters of Bernie Sanders who claim that Hillary Clinton is so culturally incompetent that she does not even know what progress means, both sides have essentially made their identities and agendas indistinguishable from one another.
This is obviously a recipe for disaster. To avoid this, liberals and conservatives alike must adopt platforms that actually mean something, and they must also develop agendas that are not simply a restatement of who they are. It is no easy task, but it is one that has to be done.