‘Enough said: what’s gone wrong with the language of politics?’

10 April 2017

In the current days of populism and Trump, there is much research emerging on how politicians use language to influence and persuade people. Mark Thompson, president and CEO of the New York Times Company, wrote a book on this particular topic, called ‘Enough said. What’s gone wrong with the language of politics?’. In this book, he argues that there is a crisis of trust in politics in the western world, which is caused by the way the public language has changed. On 8 April, Mario Calabresi interviewed Thompson on this topic in Sala dei Notari.

Thompson started out his career as a production trainee at BBC. He climbed up the career ladder until he became Director-General of BBC in 2004. In this period, he tried to reshape the organization in order to meet up to the digital age’s challenges to make sure BBC remained a leading innovator. He did this by launching, for example, BBC iPlayer. At the moment, he is responsible for the New York times’ strategy, operation and business units.

Language and politics

Thompson starts off talking about the language of populists that the western world is dealing with at the moment. He argues that, as the public doesn’t understand politics, they are lured to the simple language that populists such as Trump use.

Thompson also explains that, even before the era of Trump, Ronald Reagan also used slogans that had impact on his audience. He gives the example of a debate between Jimmy Carter and Reagan in which, after Carter had a long talk about his healthcare plans, Reagan simply answered: ‘There you go again.’ This was, according to Thompson, a very powerful statement in which Reagan really attacked the Democrats by implying that, if he would become president, things would be different. Reagan was known to be a witty writer: he could transfer his anti-communist ideas very well, using empathy, humor and emotion. Already in that era, politicians used ‘marketing techniques’ to convince the audience of their message.

Thompson extends this phenomenon to 2017 with Trump. The president uses language which is very simple but precise: “We are going to build a wall.” This short, simple speaking style is what appeals to the audience. According to Thompson, Trump has found an authentic way to talk to people, a language that helps him sell his ideas. What Trump did, and what most of his fellow-politicians do, is looking into the science of data and rhetoric in order to improve how this language can convince the audience even more.

Thompson continues that persuasion is also not just based on facts, but also on ‘ethos’, the reputation of the speaker and ‘pathos’, or emotions. According to Thompson, how politicians make people feel, matters a lot. As an example, he talks about the campaigns for and against the Brexit. The ‘leave’-campaign didn’t have as many experts as the ‘remain’-team did. Still, the latter used emotional slogans such as “Take back control” and “Independence Day”. Thompson states that, what populist do, is conveying the message “we’re listening to you.”

Citizen’s responsibility

After discussing the link between language and politics, the moderator asks what the citizen’s responsibility is in this situation. Thompson encourages citizens to become aware of the consequences of not getting involved. Thompson also emphasizes that we should help children to listen critically as a solution to fake news in order to develop a critical younger generation. He gives a few examples of topics which journalists and people should start questioning again. For example, free trade is something that is just widespread, and often, journalists don’t question the system behind it anymore. He thinks this is another reason why populism is gaining ground: people and journalists have stopped debating about some issues which should still be debated about.

Thompson does, however, remain positive about the future of journalism. The New York Times still follows the thesis that quality journalism does have a future with a viable model that still includes advertisements.

By Charlotte Teunis

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