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Reflecting on Political Rhetoric

by Catie Seibel '13

While most people are breathing sighs of relief that those relentless 2012 election ads are gone, I am reflecting on political rhetoric. Maybe it’s just my job as a tutor here at the Writing Center, but I find myself focusing on word choice this fall. The furious campaigns of this political season showed me how much rhetoric matters to politicians, and how much importance we, as citizens, place on their word choice. 

What do the words we use say about who we are and what we stand for?  After the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, the New York Times featured an interactive page called “The Words They Used.”

Check it out here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/09/06/us/politics/convention-word-counts.html  

The Democrats more frequently used words like “health,” “women,” and “education,” while the Republicans focused on words like “business,” “government,” and “freedom.”  That doesn’t mean each party focused exclusively on those issues, but this word count helps show where politicians placed their priorities.  Superseding party lines, analysis of political rhetoric also shows us what matters most to Americans: “family,” “jobs,” and “economy” were almost evenly split between political orientations.

Politicians choose their words carefully, and for a very good reason: as citizens, we want the politicians’ priorities to match our own.  If their word choice seems vague or out-of-touch, we tune them out or change the channel, and, most likely, we vote for someone else.  Who wants a leader whose language isn't relatable?  Think back to the candidate you voted for this election season.  Wasn’t it language--those key words like “health” or “freedom”--that made your decision clear?  Key words catch our attention and draw us in.

However, those same words often leave us wanting more, precisely because  they  mean so much. They leave us the room to create our own definitions within the broad boundaries of what “freedom” or “health” could mean.  My definition of “freedom” may not be the same as someone else’s, but we could both connect with a candidate that promises this lofty ideal.  In this election season, as in many elections past, opposing parties often used the same terms in very different ways. 

So what does this mean for me, as I’m writing my final papers and wrapping up the semester? It means this moment of reflection has helped me see that as powerful as words can be to catch someone’s attention, they also require us to be very careful about what we assume!

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