How to translate campaign-speak

In today’s world, political campaigns never end.

My memory of what politics was like “back when” may be wrong (much of my memory seems to drift like that now), but I don’t recall the incessant hammering from office-seekers and office-holders that now infests the airwaves and the cyberworld.

That may be a result of the unbelievable cost of a campaign, even for a state legislative seat, let alone for a statewide or federal office. Eight-figure totals are not uncommon for major office.

Unless a candidate seeks election in an overwhelmingly safe district, his or her cost to win the office is astronomical. And when there’s a primary race, the cost can double.

So candidates are always with us, sort of like coronavirus. 

One way to deal with them is to analyze their version of “polispeak” — what they actually mean when they use a particular speech device. 

A few examples:

• “moving (going) forward.” 

“That’s what we need to do moving forward.”

What it means is simply “what we need to do in the future” or “what we need to next.” But using “forward” suggests progress or improvement, something every candidate wants to imply will be accomplished by his or her action.

• “First of all.”

Used at the start of a response to an interviewer’s question. 

It often means, “I don’t want to answer that question. I want to change the subject,” because the question may not be answerable in a way that will help my campaign. So I’m going to pivot away to another topic, maybe related to the question, maybe not.

• “The American people want.”

A way to suggest that my opinion or proposal is the majority position. It may actually represent what most people want, or it may not. Unless there’s evidence that it’s mostly popular, it’s simply an attempt to justify that particular position.

• “every single day.”

“We’re doing that every single day.”

An attempt to show earnest dedication to a particular activity that is current and routinely performed. 

• “frankly.”

A way to suggest that what I’m about to say is courageous. Sometimes it backfires: does “frankly” mean that what I’ve said up to now avoids the truth or is purposely ambiguous?

• “We’re taking a look at that.”

Usually means we’ve known that’s an issue for some time, but haven’t yet decided what to do about it, and therefore aren’t ready to talk about it.

• “Look.”

Used often by Joe Biden. An attempt to imply a cut to the heart of the matter at the start of a sentence, sometimes by connecting what I’m about to say to a deeper truth.

And finally, “the media.” 

Used often by Donald Trump, almost always in a negative way. Often further defined as “the fake media.” 

Its use means a particular group of outlets, primarily the “mainstream” urban newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post and certain TV networks like CNN and MSNBC (and sometimes NBC, CBS, National Public Radio and public television). It usually doesn’t include Fox News or CNBC. Fox News is definitely one of the media, but not “the media.”

You may have your own favorite keywords or phrases. For me, it’s a way to get through a day of dozens of political ads, speeches and interviews.

Since it’s an election year, there’ll be lots more chances to treasure-hunt for other devices.

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