Commentary  Comment: On Sarah Palin’s use of language

A major shift in U.S. political culture took place almost three decades ago, according to McGill Professor Gil Troy, author of Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. Television had been around for long enough that major changes were taking place in the way politicians were using the medium.

“The average sound bite on television would go from two to three minutes to 17 seconds,” Troy explains – a phenomenon that drove up the importance of putting on a good show. “The more that happened visually, the more it affected the language.”

It’s no accident that this election seems to be a battle of key words and phrases – “hope” and “change” versus “mavericks” and “main-streeters” – even more so than in previous years.

“Obama and Palin are a different generation of leaders, post-baby-boomers. They’re children of the seventies – and very much children of Ronald Reagan.” Growing up watching Reagan on television, Troy says, both would have absorbed Reagan’s style, particularly his way of manipulating symbols and iconography.

It was during the Reagan Era that a rift between media image and political substance developed, a theme that Troy returns to throughout his book. Though it was fuelled in large part by developments in the media, Reagan’s way of generating feel-good talk while cutting social programs – sometimes linked to institutions he’d just been praising – aggravated the split.

“Not since Theodore Roosevelt had a president wrapped himself in the American flag so effectively; not since Franklin Roosevelt had a president identified his fate with the American people so convincingly,” Troy writes. “Administration officials and reporters agreed: there was a new language to American politics, one more visual than verbal, more image-oriented than issue-oriented, more stylish than substantive.”

More often than not, when I hear people talk about American political culture, it’s with a sense of fatalism. The elements that make U.S. politics such a media circus seem so deeply entrenched; it’s surprising to find they’re the product of developments barely older than I am.

This election year, it’s frustrating to hear people laugh dismissively about Sarah Palin’s turns of phrase, given how much power these kinds of sound bites can have. There’s a distinct narrative in the way she positioned her party in her convention speech: mavericks versus Big Government, the mom versus the suits, John McCain versus the forces of evil. Everything speaks to America’s distrust of Big Government – and considering that Alan Greenspan just admitted that the free market has foundered, what has de-regulation done for us lately?

Accents, word choice, and syntax also broadcast a lot of things implicitly, among them notions of identity. “Al Gore suffered when he ran against George Bush in 2000,” Troy says. “Americans, according to surveys, responded to Bush’s language, thinking ‘he must be honest, he must be like me.’”

With her folksy rhetoric and repeated mantras, Palin taps on emotional nerves: the current of anti-intellectualism that runs deep in American society, on class antagonisms, and antagonism to government as a whole.

More than that, she does it with feel-good charm, in a way that makes it seem innocuous: “She’s playing the divisive politics of red versus blue with such a charming smile, a giddy laugh that it becomes defused, detoxified,” Troy says. “In that way she’s like Reagan.”

While I’m hoping that she won’t make it to the White House this fall, according to The New York Times, many are pointing to Palin as the new face of the conservative movement. Her catch phrases aren’t a joke, but a sign of the state of the country – probably one we should take seriously, before our generation finds some of its own running for office.

Braden Goyette is a Daily culture editor. And she’s American.