The Politics of Fluff: How Politicians Say Everything Without Saying Anything at All


Having swallowed his pride and dutifully endorsed the Romney/Ryan GOP ticket, Rick Santorum is now leveling the obligatory attacks at President Obama. Setting up the election as a choice between visions of “freedom” and “dependency,” Santorum feels as though the has penetrated “the heart of the choice we have to make this November.”

Now, lest one read on with high hopes for genuine insight, I should offer a word of caution: there is a small chance you’ll be coming away disappointed. 

By the end, what you’ve read is more akin to what might be called political “jinglism” – words put together much like the catchy melody of yesterday’s pop song. Their meaning is to get your attention, simply put, and, having that, the goal is at least half reached.

George Orwell once wrote that “our civilization is decadent and our language -- so the argument runs -- must inevitably share in the general collapse.”

And how Santorum has obliged! 

A skim of the above piece reveals marvelous jingles: he believes in our noble “American values,” one fueled by a “passion for freedom.” How can this be done? Clearly by “expanding freedom and limiting government excesses and regulations.” 

Indeed, we learn quickly how our nation’s growth is “stifled” by a “culture of big government and dependency” – one which fails to respect the truly sacred “roles of family, faith, community and free enterprise.”

Little need be said about the importance of these roles – surely they speak for themselves; and pay no mind to the question of what excesses and regulations need limiting, or the principle behind these limits.  All is already known, and your vote practically casts itself.

President Obama, standing as the executive figurehead and spokesman for our country, is as guilty as one would expect. Rather than provide examples of his shallow redundancy and petty pandering, I will allow you the pleasure of doing it yourself.

Our language becomes us, and we are becoming our language. To return to Orwell, “an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” A moment of reflection brings us to social media, text messaging, and all of the usual suspects; the creeping effects of which are felt politically, and in our daily lives.

But something else must be said. This is, more now than ever, a democracy.  The vote is open to a huge group – one that is diverse in its traditions, interests, incomes, faiths, principles (“values” for you contemporary folks), intelligence, and much more. Somehow, a man must present himself before his audience and attempt to hold their attention – to win their allegiance and their vote – through the use of written or spoken word. 

What else does he have available, then, but the most basic, shallow, and, if you’ll forgive the term, “consumable” language possible? 

This should hardly be surprising, really: one writes and speaks to the audience. It’s why Helen Sword feels compelled to write a book on “Stylish Academic Writing.” Who could have imagined that academics writing to other academics could produce useless fluff? And yet the reasoning is clear: “Academics don’t write to be read; they write to be published.” 

Borrowing the thought, let us say of politicians: they don’t speak to elucidate, they speak to be elected.

Now, some people might go on to admonish politicians and demand that they “raise the level of discourse,” or something silly like that. But we are different, folks. For us, the art of being respected and fostered is that of self-government. Our politicians will speak as we ask them to speak – thus the blessing and the curse of government “of, for, and by” the people.

I admonish us. I speak directly to myself, to whoever allows willingly for the “arguments which are too brutal for most people to face” to deter them from honest discussion. When the people fail to govern themselves, then “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”  Such is the situation today.

The remedy is simple enough: act, respond, and be critical. Refuse the daily news cycle that spits out consumable “controversies” for us to pretend we’re offended by; demand that candidates speak on fewer occasions and at greater length, and then demand that their language is their own. React with horror to teleprompters and speechwriters. 

But above all, govern yourself and stand by your principles. Ennoble others, that they may do the same.  Speak of great things and aspire to great heights – both individually and within your community.

Do that, and the words will come naturally.