Modern Political Speech Is So Confusing It's "Worse Than Speaking Two Different Languages”

Politics is very confusing nowadays, semantically speaking. Oli Goldsmith/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Love it or loathe it, there’s no denying that Donald Trump is certainly shaking things up when it comes to the way politicians interact with the public, not least because of his “unorthodox” style of expression.

Penn State psychologists have looked into how political rhetoric has drifted over the past three elections and found that the two major US political parties are now using styles of language that are so dissimilar it’s effectively “worse than speaking two different languages.” No wonder the presidential election in 2016 left everyone feeling so bewildered.

Their paper, published in the journal Behavior Research Methods, looks at the semantics of political speeches and debates between 1999 and the Trump versus Clinton presidential debates last year. With the help of an AI neural network, they analyzed 213 commonly used words and 397 phrases – including 136 politically charged buzzwords like "minority", "dream", “freedom”, “truth,” and "justice" – to see how they were used in political speeches.

"We charted word meaning changes over time between parties," lead author Ping Li said in a statement. "What you see is that the parties have become farther and farther apart as time goes on. In other words, for the same word, people tend to associate different words for them and, hence, convey different meanings."

Using what they learned in the first half of the study, the researchers then flipped the research around and found they could predict hundreds of people’s political leanings based on the way they use words.

It’s all to do with how the meaning of a word changes depending on the context. These changes seem obvious when laid out like this, but in the world of politics, it’s subtle and very powerful.

“This work was actually finished last year before the 2016 elections and we were struck by how different the rhetoric was between these different candidates," said Li. "In a lot of ways, it's worse than speaking two different languages.”

"In Donald Trump's speeches, as a business person, he would apply the word 'deal' to almost anything," he explained. "Of course, 'deal' is often associated with business, but, in his speeches, he also associated it with family and education, which would not traditionally be grouped together."

Usually, when politicians expressed their ideas in a more uniform way, these nuances were relatively straightforward to decipher, but the two main parties are now using hugely different styles, and the meaning of their words is vastly different, which can lead to misunderstanding.

“If, for example, I speak Chinese and you don't, you have no idea what I'm saying," Li said. "But, if we're both speaking English and you think you know what I am saying, but don't get what I actually mean, or worse, think it means something different, it can be really confusing."

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