October 12, 2004

Policy vs. "character" -- and its linguistic correlates

This evening, Kevin Drum's Political Animal weblog has the clearest short statement that I've seen about what's wrong with political journalism in America:

POLICY vs. CHARACTER....Jon Chait has an interesting piece in The New Republic today. Ostensibly it's about flip-flopping (bottom line: Kerry does it less than you think, Bush does it more), but about halfway through he switches to media criticism:

One of the curiosities of political journalism is that reporters tend to be assiduously even-handed about matters of policy (which can revolve around disputes over objective fact) but ruthlessly judgmental on questions of character (which are inherently subjective). In fact, most reporters don't know or care much about policy. They see politics primarily through the lens of the candidates' personal traits.

Now, this is hardly an original observation — in fact, it's downright pedestrian to anyone who reads Somerby regularly — but Chait does a good job of teasing it out and explaining how an increasing fixation on "character" has made political life almost impossible for moderates from either party — but especially for Democrats.

As the 9/26 article by Alex Williams in the NYT Fashion and Style section explains, we're talking about personal traits whose objective correlates are often things like "gesture, posture, syntax and tone of voice". It might be true, as Williams claims, that "subtle style cues" like these "account for as much as 75 percent of a viewer's judgment about the electability of a candidate". Perhaps it's always been that way, I don't know. It certainly seems to me that this stuff makes up a larger fraction of journalists' campaign coverage than it used to.

Ironically, most of these "subtle style cues" could actually be investigated empirically and objectively, if they really mattered. I guess you could make a case that they do indeed matter to some extent. In predicting how someone will act in the future, your estimate of their character has to be mixed in with your opinion of their promised policies and their past record, and your estimate of their character has to depend to some extent on these subtle cues. But in this area, as Chait, Drum and Somerby explain, journalists these days mostly work from conclusion to evidence. They decide what they think each candidate's character issues are, positive or (mostly) negative, and then they pick examples of "subtle style cues" to suit -- or they just invent things.

My own opinion about this stuff is that it would probably be better if journalists focused on candidates' statements, records and promises, along with the relevant factual background, leaving evaluation of the candidates' characters up to individual voters. But that's not the world we live in. Instead, we've got a media system with powerful positive feedback loops that rapidly create shared stereotypes, fed by clever political operatives (and journalists!) busily drawing caricatures with vivid and telling anecdotes that are often out of context, misinterpreted or outright false.

In this situation, linguists' insights can certainly be helpful to political operatives and other campaign junkies. I'm not as confident that we can help ordinary voters in a positive way. But when we can clear away some of the trash obscuring the issues (and also obscuring the candidates' characters!), we should try to do so.


Posted by Mark Liberman at October 12, 2004 09:45 PM