One of my favourite Bruce Springsteen songs is ‘Thunder Road’. It includes the memorable line that you can “Waste your summer praying in vain for a saviour to rise from these streets”
I sometimes feel like political commentators are indeed wasting their summers waiting for heroic politicians to arise and save us all.
Not only is this unlikely to happen but I am not sure if it’s even desirable. The problem with saviour politicians is they pretty quickly stop being saviours and start being despots.
I must admit that I had the same feeling when I read Conrad’s piece on the uses and misuses of politicial language.
Don’t get me wrong. I get just as frustrated as the next person at the strange dialect used by politicians. It always seems like a mixture of bland folksy nonsense and half understood economics slogans (Something like “Folks around these parts want what we all want, a balanced plan to reduce the deficit”) But frustration is pretty much the beginning and ending of my feelings towards politicians use of language.
I do not think that if politicians used different language it would have pretty much any influence on the public. I do not think that the public listen particularly carefully to politicians speeches. In fact, it is very hard for politicians to get any kind of hearing at all with the public.
I certainly do not think that politicians can dupe the public through their use of language. They cannot trick us into thinking things we do not believe just through a clever turn of phrase. To use the example Conrad cites, I do not think that there is little public support for most forms of benefits just because politicians constantly refer to people as “hard working families” and I do not think that if politicians used more inclusive language that the public would become more favourable to the idea of benefits.
I explore some of the historical evidence for my beliefs here with the examples of Thatcher trying to shrink the state and Blair trying to build support for the Iraq war.
So, I do not think that politicians using different language can dramatically change the public mood. But, further to that, I do not think that would be desirable even if it were possible.
There are always cases in which we find ourselves at odds with the majority of people. In a democracy what should our response be to this situation? One answer is to get our politicians to do what we believe to be right and to hope that they can convince the public that it was the right thing to do all along. This is very tempting but it is not really a good long term strategy. It is just as likely to lead to a backlash or worse a belief amongst politicians that they do not have to represent the people who voted for them.
I previously explored the dramatic change in public opinion in America over the issue of gay marriage. I argued that it was a result of the rise in the number of people who say they know someone that is gay. This has resulted in many people changing their minds on the issue. Politicians are now, gradually, realizing this, and more and more states are allowing gay marriage.
Convincing your friends, colleagues and neighbors, organizing associations, building support in any way you can think, this is a far preferable and more practical course of action than hoping in vain for politicians to use language we prefer.
As Bruce says in another song “You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come/ Well don’t waste your time waiting”