Language in U.S. Politics – Take 2

On June 16th, 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the Presidency and U.S. Politics, with all of its ceremonial practices and normative restrictions, changed. Suddenly a President – and a candidate, although campaign language has always been known to be somewhat inimical to the truth –  could suggest that what was illegal was legal, that the representative of the nation did not have to restrict the reach of his opinions, that he did not have to be held accountable for his statements, and that all enemies were liars. He not only changed the status and role of the president, but he also broke silences around nativist social and political attitudes. It was suddenly OK to explicitly say Mexicans were lazy, rapists, murderers, stealing American jobs. Even if the sentiment had been implied for years, couched in the veiled terms of “illegal immigrants” (it reminds one of Schrodinger’s immigrant – simultaneously lazy and stealing your job). But what was so persuasive about all of this?

Formally he did what any good campaigner does. He recognised the situation as a battle, and he created momentum by being a figure onto which many people could project their fantasies –  fantasies of finding solutions to the countries’ many problems. Sometimes the problems were fantasies themselves. His language, and its meandering, unclear forms, could echo many different kinds of sentiments.

Trump’s campaign language provided these “solutions” by drawing upon already existing associations that he knew his voters would pick up on – implied associations of threat, terror, and policies that have undermined the country’s potential (implying that he could find the solution), eventually not even explaining how this has happened or why but creating complicity with his speakers by insisting on a shared knowledge – the fact that he could understand their “common sentiment”.

The persuasion lay hidden in the creation of a sense of belonging to a group of “those who know the truth”. The unclear associations of meaning became memetic – once he said “Mexicans” to his listeners 3 months after his first speech, his crowd could easily discerned the associated traits and definitions. These memetic terms were simultaneously vague enough and specific enough to his field of imagery and associated meaning to become the most persuasive weapons in the 2016 Presidential Elections.  Understanding this field of imagery and meaning implied having an inner-knowledge – authentic and hidden “truths”. And only some people, his electorate, and himself, could gauge these – according to him.

Once the explicit positions between himself and all possible other candidates were established, it was just a question of continuing to insist that he knew what normal Americans knew – unlike Clinton, Cruz, and just about everybody else. Even if this was never clear – in the way dog-whistling is never clear, and in the way in which much of his confirmation or denial of things is never clear (A very recent case in point: Trump, as a candidate, simultaneously knew and didn’t know what someone should do if they receive information from a foreign state about their opponent) – it was nonetheless an effective technique.

Much of this is not new. But within 2016’s context, at the end of Obama’s presidency, Trump effectively postured as a “transgressive” candidate – and this was something different from past candidates. The main means of taking “transgressive” political stances is, in our era, more and more about inhabiting a grey space, speaking in ambiguity or at least in a deniable ambiguity – the sincerity is, often, in the insincerity of the statement.


Language in U.S. Politics – Take 1

To inaugurate the recent ‘start’ (Memorial Day weekend) of the 2021 General Election primaries period, I’m going to be going over some reflections I’ve had whilst studying the last general election primaries – the one running up to the 2016 General Election (not quite yet available – will be soon).

Before wading into those waters, let’s give a bit of context.

Party sorting is a phenomenon defined as the progressive process of moderate liberal or conservative politics integrating themselves into bilateral parties commonly associated with the left or the right. Republican social liberals have increasingly “sorted themselves” and integrated themselves into the Democrats. And vice versa. This, acknowledged as the defining feature of US party politics’ recent history, has an increasingly concerning effect:  the loss of middle ground, of ‘cross-benchers’ that can ‘translate’ language, attitudes across each side and can ‘temper’ political conformist tendencies within their respective parties. Without these kinds, extremity becomes a norm, and scandal becomes a strategy for parties increasingly at odds with each other- not only because of their policies, but also because of their oppositional identities. It is here where “scandal” emerges as the most relevant means of communicating with voters – policy difference is self-evident, there is little overlap – so how do you win over voters from the other side?

You demonize the other side. You spin policy into a moral playing field, and solidify political debate within these terms. Political identities lose their dimensions and are ‘fetishized’, as moral scandals constantly push you to question the other sides’ very ethics – confirming your own sense of ethical superiority (The ‘scandal politics’ that emerged with Watergate – read more here.).

This emerged parallel to the increasing use of explicit forms of identity politics. These reinforcing mechanisms are seemingly everywhere – you and most others accept the seeming inevitability of these changes. And your identity is defined in opposition to other political kinds’ (i.e. you resist).

No wonder it is easy to fall under the sway of this kind of opposition language, the kind that doesn’t say much except for what you hope to hear: that all that contradicts your opinions is wrong – for those looking for your support, donations, vote, etc. the groundwork is solidly lain.

(Re)drawing South Sudan’s States – or, trying to create administrative certainty

Last year, two parties to South Sudan’s Civil War, SPLA-led government forces and SPLM-IO opposition ones, signed the “Revitalized Agreement on the Renewed Cessation of Hostilities” (or the R-ARCSS) and paved the way towards a two year-long peace process. A power-sharing, transitional government should have been formed by May 11th, when a pre-transitional period ends – but has now been delayed for another six months. Nonetheless, several R-ARCSS provisions need to be fulfilled before this transitional government is formed.

But only one has been accomplished so far. An IGAD-mediated Technical Boundary Committee (TBC) recently assessed the number of states existing within South Sudan on January 1st 1956 and submitted these findings last March 27th. The findings are supposed to settle the issue of how many states compose South Sudan, working from its 1956 independence day.

Why has this provision been fulfilled with such urgency – and others neglected (there is little sign of militias integrating their forces into a national army, for instance)? It may have something to do with South Sudan’s politicized history of boundary-drawing, according to Rift Valley Institute researchers Douglas Johnson, Aly Verjee, and Mathew Pritchard in their analysis “After the Khartoum Agreement” (available via the Institute’s website.)

The story starts with the British who, ruling Sudan under the Egyptian-Sudanese Condominium, frequently re-drew internal borders to better administer cross-tribal relations. These shifted between reciprocity and war as tribes moved across and within provinces, redefining notions of homeland, neighbour, and enemy over the years. Some tribes supported certain re-drawings, as it allocated them access to resources – whilst others contested them.

After independence in 1956, printed maps were imprecise and inconsistent. By 1990 states replaced provinces, making it difficult to consult locals about boundary redefinitions as rural southern Sudan became more inaccessible. When South Sudan claimed independence and later brokered peace with northern Sudan, the situation complicated:

“South Sudan’s internal boundaries in 2005, at the beginning of the Interim Period of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement [CPA – ending fighting between Northern and Southern Sudan], were a combination of federal state boundaries created by Khartoum, and local administrative boundaries created by the SPLA in their liberated areas. Since 2005 … South Sudan has alternated between trying to merge these two systems and replacing them with an entirely new system.”

By 2013 civil war broke out; the first peace deal in 2015 mandated South Sudan be composed of 10 states with mostly power-sharing administrations. Soon afterwards the SPLA-led government hastily redrew them into 32 states as it grew insecure with the oppositions’ new grasp on power – fuelling conflict. In 2016 an IGAD-mediated commission was established in order to settle the issue, but failed

This time around, the TBC seems to have fulfilled its duties. But this does not unburden the ultimate task at hand – ensuring parties agree to its findings. The provision’s wording is itself contentious, maintaining that South Sudan will have a centralized state system whereas the SPLM-IO advocates 21 de-centralized states.

And, according to Johnson, Verjee, and Pritchard, although a “combination of maps” can be used to identify 1956 provincial boundaries, district boundaries are ill-defined. These maps lack topographical information and their scales do not provide enough detail to actually plot them out, making the TBC’s conclusions susceptible to contestation. Further, a date set in stone ignores tribes’ changing notions of homeland over the years.

Ideally the TBC’s work would complement national discussions on what South Sudanese federalism will look like during peace-time, according to Johnson, Verjee, and Pritchard, to make sure the R-ARCSS’ outcomes are not out of sync with communities’ sentiments. Otherwise, peace may remain an ill-defined object.