Contrary to the famous proverb about windows to the soul, political communication expert Rod Hart would argue that language is the window to the soul, not the eyes. He should know. Hart has spent the past 40 years studying the language of American politics.
Earlier this month, his book “Campaign Talk: Why Elections Are Good for Us,” (Princeton University Press, 2000) received the Graber award, honoring the best political communication book of the past 10 years, from the American Political Science Association. The award is not made every year.
“Campaign Talk” contains a long-term (1948-1996) analysis of thousands of texts from several genres of campaign language, such as campaign speeches, debates, print and television news coverage, advertisements and letters to the editor. Hart’s computerized content analysis program, DICTION, boils down a candidate’s campaign rhetoric into a simple inventory of words and compares them to DICTION’s 10,000-word database—similar to a forensics lab analyzing DNA samples to determine the identity of a culprit.
“Language can tell us a lot about people and the lives they lead,” said Hart, who is the dean of the College of Communication. “There are a lot of clues in what people say that we don’t pay attention to.”
For example, Hart recently presented a paper analyzing the campaign language used during the 2008 presidential election. His research found that despite President Barack Obama’s reputation as an eloquent speaker, the language of his campaign was very pragmatic, concrete and optimistic. “He’s a great orator, but in examining his language, you see that he ran a very serious, hard-headed campaign. He spoke in concrete terms, and avoided overstatements and highfalutin metaphors,” said Hart.
Sen. John McCain on the other hand, ran a very old-fashioned, biographical campaign with heavy use of the words “I,” “me” and “myself.” “McCain used a lot of adjectives and adverbs as opposed to nouns and verbs,” said Hart. “When you compare the two campaigns on the basis of language, they contrasted sharply.”
So what language resonates with the electorate? Freedom. “Everyone loves the word ‘freedom.’ To Republicans ‘freedom’ represents individual freedoms, whereas Democrats tend to think of it as incorporating people into the group. Hence it no longer has any meaning,” Hart said. According to Hart, language reveals so much about a candidate that his DICTION program can identify a candidate’s party affiliation based strictly on campaign language analysis.
What words are turnoffs in a campaign? Religious language. “Politicians are careful in using religious language in their campaigns. While it’s accepted in the South, politicians tend to tone it down as they evolve from a regional to a national candidate. Jimmy Carter is a very religious man, but he chose his words carefully once he was on the national stage.”
Despite pervasive sentiment that campaigns have become too negative, Hart’s book asserts that campaigns play a vital role in sustaining democracy by creating a national dialogue and letting us peer into the souls of our political candidates.