Elvin Lim, assistant professor of government, studies how U.S. presidents speak. He’s not impressed.
By Corrina Balash Kerr
Assistant Professor of Government Elvin Lim is the author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush, a new book that received considerable attention during the recent election season. Lim writes that his aim is to provide an account of “the relentless simplification of presidential rhetoric in the last two centuries and the increasing substitution of arguments with applause-rendering platitudes, partisan punch lines, and emotional and human interest appeals.” Within the past 80 years, the readability of presidential rhetoric has declined from college level to the eighth-grade. True for Democratic and Republican presidents, the trend is a manifestation of anti-intellectualism, Lim says. The consequence is that presidents are failing to give citizens the guidance they need to make thoughtful decisions about complex problems.
Lim holds a doctorate in politics from the University of Oxford. He blogs on politics and elections at www.elvinlim.com.
CORRINA BALASH KERR: Why have there been so few Woodrow Wilsons, or scholar-presidents, in recent history?
ELVIN LIM: Americans are perfectly fine with scholar-presidents, as long as they pull off being knowledgeableand populist—a combination Theodore Roosevelt well exemplified, as did (to a lesser extent) a recent Rhodes Scholar, Bill Clinton. This is easier said than done, though, because there is a strand of populism, anti-intellectualism, that works as a potent political weapon against those political candidates who are more comfortable with knowledge and issues than populism and charm.
CBK: What is anti-intellectualism in the political context?
EL: At the rhetorical level, anti-intellectualism is an immoderate preference for linguistic simplicity, a disdain for arguments in favor of platitudes, human interest, and emotional appeals that are not open to rational disputation.
CBK: Your work shows that the trend toward anti-intellectualism in the presidency is increasing over time. Why is that the case?
EL: The division of labor within the White House has helped to intensify anti-intellectualism. When once policy-makers were also speechwriters, in the post-Nixon White House the two jobs became distinct, so that while the job of the contemporary policy-maker is to design policy, the job of the speechwriter is merely to sell it. The disaggregation of these two roles has fueled an increasingly cynical attitude toward the use of language as a persuasive rather than a pedagogical instrument.
CBK: What can we do to fix a system that rewards people who dumb things down for the public? Who can effect change—the president himself, the president’s speechwriters?
EL: The system that we have today, with the primaries, an extended campaign, and a media looking for six-second sound bites, is deeply entrenched. Ultimately, we the audience (scholars, journalists, and citizens) must take anti-intellectual rhetorical spellbinders to task for feeding up vacuous pap. To begin, we have to shatter the group-think that simpler is always better. This book is a small step in that direction. When the alternative appears not only conceivable but profitable, the president will venture to resist the anti-intellectual path of least resistance, and if he is electorally rewarded, we will begin to reverse this entrenched habit.
CBK: Do you think that Americans now expect entertainment in their political races? That we just can’t stand to have things be dull and orderly?
EL: That is certainly part of the problem of modern campaigns—that we seek sound bites and applause lines—and such rhetorical devices are antithetical to arguments and deliberation. Yet I don’t want to pin the blame too squarely on the people, because our leaders have also shirked their responsibility to engage us intellectually.
CBK: You write that Bill Clinton used simplified rhetoric, yet he was a Rhodes Scholar. Explain the apparent contradiction of highly intelligent presidents resorting to linguistic simplification.
EL: Only intelligent persons know and are able to exploit the political utility of anti-intellectualism. An ignorant person may be un-intellectual or non-intellectual. But it takes a smart person to put the “anti” in “anti-intellectualism,” which is a deliberate and considered political strategy.
CBK:Is the trend toward anti-intellectualism more pronounced in campaign rhetoric, or is it equally present in presidential governing language?
EL: The problem of anti-intellectualism pervades both campaign and governmental rhetoric equally, not least because the two are often indistinguishable in the era of the “permanent campaign.” That said, in some circumstances, campaign rhetoric scores pretty high in substance (such as in debates, and also in negative ads, when politicians justify their negativity by pinpointing substantive disagreements with their rivals). Conversely, because so much of presidential rhetoric is about selling a pre-packaged set of policies decided beforehand, a lot of presidential rhetoric often appeals to the dark arts of populist rhetoric meant to engender support rather than deliberation.
CBK: What was your reaction to President-elect Barack Obama’s victory speech?
EL: Obama resisted the urge to deliver a merely poetic speech. It seemed as though he was already giving his first presidential speech, warning the nation of what is to come and how much work there is to be done. To the extent that Obama recognized that this is no time for merely self-congratulatory rhetoric, this was an admirable speech. I note, however, that the asymmetric image of one man speaking before adoring thousands—reminding me of the demagoguery of which the Founders so urgently warned—did not sit comfortably with me.
CBK: How would you characterize Barack Obama’s speaking style?
EL: Obama’s speeches are of a hybrid quality. Recall that during the primaries Hillary delivered the prose, but he delivered the poetry. Conservatives were agitated that there was no substance in some of his speeches—just platitudes. But liberals should remember that this was the same charge they had of Ronald Reagan and his truisms. Platitudes are a distinctly American rhetorical ingredient—they unite by generating assent but they do so at the expense of specificity, and they are often as sublime as they are vacuous. Barack Obama excels (as have Lincoln, FDR, and Reagan) in their usage.
CBK:Is that a strike against Reagan and Obama, or can platitudes and other rhetorical devices be used to help deliver more complex messages effectively?
EL: Platitudes aren’t typically used to deliver a complex thought; more often they are used to inspire. Now, there is certainly space for epideictic or ceremonial speech in presidential discourse. But not every act of rhetoric should be an act of inspiration, because government is much more than routine and perpetual cheerleading.
CBK: Do you think Barack Obama’s oratorical style will change in the coming months?
EL: Certainly, the media will continue to demand sound bites, but I hope Obama will resist the urge to oblige. He has four years to govern and does not need to put himself up for a perpetual popularity contest with the public. Even though part of the president’s task is to persuade the public, he should also direct his attention to private, measured, and fruitful negotiations with Congress. And if he must speak to the people, he should remember that his task is not only to persuade, but also to educate.
CBK: In future speeches, how can Obama begin to assure American voters that he is addressing the pressing issues that this country is facing?
EL: In campaigning, candidates promise; in governance, presidents act. The only way Obama can assure the American people that they picked the right man is to get to work and deliver on his promises.
CBK: In what ways was John McCain’s concession speech different from his previous speeches?
EL: McCain’s speech was contrite and modest, but that was to be expected considering the circumstances. November 4 was probably his last moment in the national limelight—assuming that he will not run for the presidency again—and it was important for his political legacy that he exited the stage with grace.
CBK: How would you characterize Sen. John McCain’s speaking style during the campaign?
EL: McCain excelled in town hall meetings, not in debates and grand speeches. He is great in person but testy and even disoriented on TV. For better or for worse, he was trained in the older generation of stump-style speechifying, and has not yet caught on to the new genre of public speaking.
CBK: Former Republican Congressman Mickey Edwards recently said on NPR that one of the reasons for the failure of the Republican Party is that it has become the anti-intellectual party—a departure from decades ago. Do you agree?
EL: Yes, the Republicans have been more anti-intellectual than the Democrats have been in recent decades. The anti-intellectual strategy worked in 2000 and 2004, and remains a powerful if unfortunate political strategy. This year, voters were looking not only for people who sounded like them and therefore could be assumed to be for them, voters were also looking for someone they perceived to be capable and competent enough to look out for them. In this moment of economic insecurity and crisis, anti-intellectualism could not perform its usual magic.
CBK: What is the real damage done by presidential use of overly simplified rhetoric?
EL: The real damage is done to our democracy. When we are served up with vacuous sound bites that substitute for real deliberation, out of which citizens are lulled into a false sense of security that genuine democratic debate is occurring, we allow demagogues to substitute mere rhetorical responsiveness with actual governmental responsiveness; we can be hoodwinked into thinking that because our interlocutor speaks like us, she or he governs for us.