Guest Host: A. Martinez

 Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listen to his speech July 27 in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listen to his speech July 27 in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Public anger against conventional politicians and their parties is on the rise across the Western world. In Europe, right-wing, populist candidates are winning state-wide elections. And here in the U.S., it’s the rise of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose backers praise him for “telling it like it is.” In a new book, New York Times CEO Mark Thompson warns that underneath this growing support for populist candidates is a breakdown of our public language, which he says is being misused and misunderstood. Guest host A. Martinez talks with Thompson about what’s gone wrong with the language of politics and what to do about it.

Guests

  • Mark Thompson President & CEO, The New York Times Co; former director-general, BBC (2004-2012)

Read An Excerpt

Reprinted with permission.

Enough Said by wamu885 on Scribd

Transcript

  • 11:06:54

    MR. A. MARTINEZThanks for joining us. I'm A. Martinez of Take Two on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump praise him for telling it like it is and being authentic. In the UK, the Brexit campaign prevailed despite great efforts by mainstream politicians. New York Times CEO Mark Thompson argues this can all be explained by a breakdown in our public language.

  • 11:07:20

    MR. A. MARTINEZHe warns the rejection of expertise and the digital revolution are damaging our political discourse and it'll have disastrous consequences for policy-making. His new book is titled, "Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics." And Mark Thompson joins me from the NPR bureau in New York City. Mark, welcome.

  • 11:07:40

    MR. MARK THOMPSONGood morning, good morning.

  • 11:07:41

    MARTINEZNow, we'll be taking your calls as well so give us a ring at 800-433-8850. That's 800-433-8850. Send us your email at drshow@wamu.org. Or you can join us on Facebook or Twitter. Now, Mark, typically when us radio folk do these book interviews, we have the person that wrote the book read from the book. But I'm going to do something a little different. I want to read from your book. Is that okay if I do that for you, Mark?

  • 11:08:11

    THOMPSONIt's fine. You'll do it in the right accent as well.

  • 11:08:12

    MARTINEZOkay. And I promise there is a point to this. So hopefully, I'll get to it eventually. Now, here it is. "Now, over time, leaders and commentators and activists with empathy and eloquence can use words not to exploit the public mood, but to shape it. And the result, peace, prosperity, progress, inequality, prejudice, persecution, war. Public language matters. This is hardly a new discovery. It's why public language and public speaking have been studied and taught and fought over for thousands of years.

  • 11:08:41

    MARTINEZBut never before has public language been as widely and readily distributed as it is today. Words hurdle through virtual space with infinitesimal delay. A politician can plant an idea in 10 million other minds before she leaves the podium." Now, Mark, right there in that last sentence, politician planting ideas before she leaves the podium. I immediately thought of Hillary Clinton. I don't know. Was that an exercise to see exactly what kind of idea would be planted in my head?

  • 11:09:13

    THOMPSONIt could be Hillary Clinton. Now, of course, it could be Theresa May in the UK.

  • 11:09:16

    MARTINEZThat's true, too, yes.

  • 11:09:17

    THOMPSONI have to say, I tried through the book to make sure my pronouns are fairly evenly divided so male or female politicians count here.

  • 11:09:27

    MARTINEZAll right, okay. Good. I thought maybe it was a -- because it was so early in the book, I thought, oh, is he trying something on me right here and now?

  • 11:09:33

    THOMPSONI mean, what I do think is that the clash of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump is almost like a clash of two different styles of rhetoric, rather almost across a spectrum, almost two extremes of rhetoric clashing. So I do think -- I think how Hillary Clinton speaks, her style, what she's trying to achieve and how Donald Trump speaks, his style, what he's trying to achieve, I think do illustrate many of the themes of the book.

  • 11:10:00

    MARTINEZNow, you write that there is a crisis of trust in politics right now. Explain crisis of trust.

  • 11:10:05

    THOMPSONWell, I think, firstly, you know, I can bring some opinion poll research to support this claim. In other words, when people are asked a series of measures of trust in politicians, not just in the United States, but in the UK and in many, many, probably most Western countries, there's real evidence of -- not everyone, but many, many voters distrusting politicians and what they say. And also, a yawning gap -- Adelman does an annual trust survey and one of the things it shows is a yawning gap between the levels of trust expressed by elites, by the most educated, most prosperous people in different countries and the public at large.

  • 11:10:53

    THOMPSONAnd the biggest gap of trust, do you trust politicians, the gap between the level of trust expressed by elites and, as it were, ordinary voters, the gap is greatest and widening in the U.S., the UK and France.

  • 11:11:07

    MARTINEZWe really haven't trusted politicians. I mean, is that something new, not trusting politicians?

  • 11:11:14

    THOMPSONI mean, one thing I say in the book is I'm not claiming there was some kind of garden of Eden, some sort of golden age where politicians were always nice to each and explained policy carefully and the public just applauded as they did so. We've always had a distrust and, frankly, I suspect a health skepticism about political language and what politicians say.

  • 11:11:37

    THOMPSONI do think there's real evidence in many countries of something which feels essentially new. In countries as diverse as the United States and Italy, we're seeing the rise of, you know, political figures who are explicitly anti-politicians. They don't come from a political background. They've never previously held political office. Often, for example, Beppe Grillo in Italy, they create a brand new political party. Grillo is a stand-up comedian by trade.

  • 11:12:15

    THOMPSONAnd yet, their rejection of all of the conventions of political speech doesn’t lead to them being ignored. They actually -- that becomes their appeal and the fact that they're overturning conventions, they're saying the unsayable, they are bunching all of the mainstream politicians together and dismissing them all, becomes part of their appeal. And I thought it was very striking in the early stages of the primary process that Donald Trump, essentially, wasn't particularly distinguishing between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush.

  • 11:12:46

    THOMPSONHe was really asking the American public to reject an entire generation and an entire class of mainstream politician.

  • 11:12:54

    MARTINEZMy grandpa, when he became a voter for the first time, and I asked him, when I was a little kid, you know, how do you know who to vote for? He's like, well, they all say the same thing. It's just a matter of how they say it. So I'm wondering how maybe public language shapes how much we have that crisis of trust in your heads.

  • 11:13:10

    THOMPSONWell, obviously, my book is suggesting it plays a big part. Now, it must be said, many people, particularly people on the left often like to think of language as a superficial and kind of not very important lair and that what really matters is ideology and policy, you know, what are the substantive political ideas the different political parties and individual political leaders are offering. But actually, if you think about it for a moment, all political ideas are expressed when they're shared between human beings, which is what you have to do in a democracy.

  • 11:13:43

    THOMPSONThey're always shared in language. And to me, expression, the expression of particular ideas and the ideas themselves are all tangled up and manifestly, right now, in this country, the electoral cycle is significantly about language. You mentioned Donald Trump's success at being thought of as someone who "tells it like it is."

  • 11:14:07

    MARTINEZTells it like it is, yeah.

  • 11:14:09

    THOMPSONI mean, Donald Trump has no -- there's no political record to judge him on. Until quite recently, the policy platform has been actually very broad brush of a small number of very strong, very simple ideas, but not really a detailed policy thing. So voters -- he's invited voters really to judge him on whether they believe what he says and believe, as it were, his stance as a different kind of political leader. And the critique of him, the critique from Hillary Clinton and, more broadly, from the left, indeed the -- as it were, more mainstream elements in the Republican party, again, has been very strongly focused around the fact that he doesn't tell the truth, that he exaggerates, that what he says is completely unacceptable because it's so extreme, it's so insulting.

  • 11:15:02

    THOMPSONSo to an amazing extent, I think, this has, so far, been an election campaign fought around -- through language, but also fought about language.

  • 11:15:11

    MARTINEZAbout language in what way? In how things are said?

  • 11:15:15

    THOMPSONWell, and essentially whether or not -- I mean, to me, Donald Trump has presented himself who speaks like ordinary people speak, not in a political code, not in a carefully focused group turned kind of carefully precooked manner, but off-the-cuff in a very human, immediate way. And he's saying, I speak -- he's saying to the American public, I speak the way you speak. I think the way you speak. And this is a way of...

  • 11:15:42

    MARTINEZEven though he's a very rich New Yorker, something that a lot of people in America are not.

  • 11:15:47

    THOMPSONI think it's very interesting that he has -- obviously not for everyone, but for a significant number, for tens of millions of Americans, notwithstanding the wealth, maybe because of the wealth because he's presented himself as a self-made success story. The simplicity of what he's said, his unwillingness to grapple with complexity, the fact that he's obviously, you know, much of the time has been just saying what's come into his head, all of these things he's used to try and build up a picture of authenticity.

  • 11:16:25

    THOMPSONNow, I'm very careful in my book to distinguish between, as it were, authenticity itself and something I call authenticism, which is a deliberate political attempt to present yourself as authentic. And I think the difference between authenticism and real authenticity, telling the truth, I mean, obviously depends on your political views. But those two things are not automatic. If somebody says, I'm really authentic, I really do tell it like it is, that doesn't mean you should automatically believe them when they say that.

  • 11:16:55

    MARTINEZBecause his words -- I'll give him this. His words seemingly connect with a wide swath of people, I mean, from all different parts. And, you know, when you consider his background, where he came from, how he came up, it is a little surprising that the words he uses in public seemingly have this connection.

  • 11:17:14

    THOMPSONBut think about his training. You know, he's lived for many years in the kind of hot house of New York and New York media. Years ago, he was almost weekly phoning individual journalists, spinning influencing coverage of different aspects of his business and of his personal life. He rose to national prominence at least in part as the star of a reality show. And the beats, the style, the humor that goes with a certain kind of reality television, reaching many, many millions of American viewers and that means millions of American voters, I think he's had quite a sophisticated training in a certain kind of very direct language.

  • 11:18:06

    MARTINEZMark, hold that thought, hold that thought. Our guest is Mark Thompson. His new book, "Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics." More coming up in just a minute.

  • 11:20:01

    MARTINEZWelcome back. I'm A. Martinez of Take Two on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. My guest is Mark Thompson. He's president & CEO of The New York Times Company. Previously he was director-general for -- of the BBC. And he's got a new book out. It's called "Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics."

  • 11:20:21

    MARTINEZAnd Mark, one of the things that you mentioned in the book about the unraveling of public language, what we hear from our politicians, the people that we're deciding on who to vote into office, is that, you know, that this unraveling began with the health care debate about seven years ago. So explain -- explain what you mean by unraveling seven years ago.

  • 11:20:44

    THOMPSONSo I became very interested in this subject, partly listening to two kinds of debate about health care reform. One was in the United States, a Democrat president, Barack Obama, trying to reform health care in this country. Literally a few months later, a parallel process took place in the United Kingdom, but this time it was a conservative-led government trying to reform the National Health Service.

  • 11:21:14

    THOMPSONIn the first case in America, the critics largely came from the Republican Party on the right and in particular the Tea Party. And in the UK, the critics came from the left. But I was very struck by how similar some of the tactics were from the critics. And they were trying -- health care is a monstrously complicated subject. Any reform of any modern Western health care system is going to be -- is going to run to hundreds and thousands of pages of legislation.

  • 11:21:43

    THOMPSONAnd the critics were trying to figure out ways of just cutting through the complexity and landing significant political points, almost like a kind of, you know, a kind of armor-piercing bullet hitting its target. And I was particularly struck by Sarah Palin's phrase the death panels. This referred to a very obscure argument in the legislation at the time about end-of-life counseling, about whether there should be essentially government support via Medicare for counseling of older people on what level of medical intervention they want in the last days and weeks of their lives.

  • 11:22:29

    THOMPSONBut Sarah Palin, in a Facebook and Twitter posting, comes up with this phrase death panel, and it sort of took the debate by storm in the summer of 2009, when this debate was raging. Suddenly death panels focused -- and the death panels, it's only two words, which means it's incredibly easy to put behind a news anchor or to put in a strip at the bottom of a cable TV channel.

  • 11:22:53

    MARTINEZIt's easy to frame, very easy to frame.

  • 11:22:55

    THOMPSONIt's incredibly easy to frame, but it's a very sophisticated idea, death panels. I mean, it's a -- it's a -- arguably an extremely cynical compression of language, but it's effective. And what it really says is Barack Obama and the federal government are going to set up panels of bureaucrats to call members of the public in front of them to decide who lives and who dies. So it's almost a reference to kind of death camps and the selections in death camps.

  • 11:23:23

    THOMPSONIt kind of conjures up an Orwellian, dystopic future where, you know, you've lost all control of your and your family's health care, and it's all decided by government bureaucrats in white coats who are running through the population and deciding on the base of their own whim who should live and who shouldn't. But it's all wrapped up in these two words, and it made a big difference. I mean, at the time, the end-of-life counseling clauses were removed from the legislation, and it made a very significance to the debate.

  • 11:23:59

    THOMPSONAnd I would say it's not really the beginning of that, but I thought -- I thought...

  • 11:24:03

    MARTINEZMark...

  • 11:24:04

    THOMPSONIt felt like a kind of qualitative change in the debate.

  • 11:24:06

    MARTINEZWere those two words so strong that no one could fight against it, swing back, argue back?

  • 11:24:12

    THOMPSONI think what's interesting is the debunking, and, you know, the proponents of Obamacare weren't stupid. They realized this was a really dangerous kind of meme running, and they tried to debunk it. But I think one of the curious and interesting things, and it felt new in 2009, and I think much has happened since to reinforce it, is that debunking death panels had the unintended consequence of further propagating as a phrase, and suddenly debunking it and saying it's not true almost began to legitimize it as a kind of debating point, and it actually I think had the effect of magnifying and extending its expression across U.S. media so that within a few weeks, Pew was finding that a majority of Americans have heard of it, and many, many Americans, particularly Republicans, believe it must be true that the government genuinely intends to set up, in quote, death panels.

  • 11:25:09

    MARTINEZSo those two words, death panels, took away from maybe what the actual truth of the text really wanted to say.

  • 11:25:20

    THOMPSONCompletely, and it illustrated something else, which is that the gulf -- modern government, and health care is a really good example, is necessarily very complex. It's -- the legislation is framed by technocratic policymakers. It's drafted by lawyers. It's highly technical. It probably needs to be, but it's certainly highly technical. And the gap between that language, the language of the illuminati, the people who think about and write public policy, and ordinary people, has grown wider and wider, and the -- therefore the potential for politicians to come up and say they're all talking gobbledygook, they were an out-of-touch, over-educated elite, you can't trust them because you can't understand what they're saying, therefore you shouldn't trust them.

  • 11:26:13

    THOMPSONIn the Brexit debate in the UK, one of the major leaders of the campaign to lead the European -- to convince people that the UK should leave the European Union. Michael Gove said in the middle of the campaign people in this country have had enough of experts, have had enough of experts, and I think, again, that was a really interesting moment where a politician frankly, I mean, Michael Gove himself has been a minister in the British government, a very technocratic minister himself.

  • 11:26:42

    THOMPSONBut when a politician says don't listen to the experts, don't listen to the doctors about vaccines, don't listen to the economists about the future of the economy, it does represent a kind of break point in democratic politics.

  • 11:26:55

    MARTINEZMark, when these words are used, though, when these phrases and words are used and put together, I mean, sometimes I feel like they're done kind of off the hip, like in other words shooting from the hip and all of a sudden it becomes something that maybe it wasn't intended to be. But is there a lot of preparation to the way these words are put out to us?

  • 11:27:16

    THOMPSONWell, it's interesting. I mean, I think the answer is there can be. And one of the interesting kind of precursors of death panels was death tax. And death tax was an engineered phrase to talk about the tax, which is paid when somebody dies in this country. You could call it estate tax. But death tax, Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster and expert on language, encouraged the right to use the phrase death tax as a more emotive way of talking about something which you can also describe in a very neutral way.

  • 11:27:59

    THOMPSONAnd so death tax I think was tested. I think Frank Luntz actually tested it with focus groups and saw their reaction and tested the reaction to that relative to more neutral phrases. Another one of Frank Luntz' preferred formulations was the formulation climate change as opposed to global warming. Climate change doesn't beg -- the argument about global warming, let's just talk about climate change. And in that case that was an attempt to find a more neutral label because if the skeptics of global warming used the phrase global warming, it sounded as if they already kind of accepted the argument.

  • 11:28:46

    THOMPSONSo sometimes I think these things have been really quite carefully thought about, tested and prepared, but what's interesting is that essentially social media and the Internet, you know, offers a politician like Sarah Palin or Donald Trump, it's almost like a gigantic laboratory, and you can just throw words out there and see what sticks.

  • 11:29:12

    THOMPSONAnd almost by definition, the words that the -- the words and phrases which work very quickly get passed on, retweeted and then expand through digital media.

  • 11:29:24

    MARTINEZThey go viral, yeah.

  • 11:29:25

    THOMPSONSo in a strange way, although very, very careful, systematic testing of language is certainly part of our world, a lot of this has been borrowed from the whole world of marketing. Actually, it turns out that, you know, an inventive -- an imaginative person, politician, can just throw an awful lot of language against the wall, and social media will do its own sorting of what works and what doesn't work.

  • 11:29:50

    MARTINEZWhat do you think the ancient Greeks would think of the way we construct our words today?

  • 11:29:56

    THOMPSON(laugh) Well, if you really want to understand rhetoric, you shouldn't read my book, you should read "The Art of Rhetoric" by Aristotle, who two-and-a-half thousand years ago has pretty much nailed the subject.

  • 11:30:04

    MARTINEZThen your book right after, yeah.

  • 11:30:05

    THOMPSON(laugh) Exactly. No, I...

  • 11:30:08

    MARTINEZCompanion piece.

  • 11:30:10

    THOMPSONI've got some modern examples, but Aristotle, it's a wonderful piece of work. He observes incredibly closely how human beings try and persuade each other of things, whether they're talking about politics, whether it's in court or even when they're giving a commencement speech, or they're giving an address at a funeral. He's looking really closely at that and looking at how -- what human beings do. And he gets a lot of this.

  • 11:30:35

    THOMPSONSo for example, he recognizes that orators cut corners. They're not like philosophers. They haven't got all day to argue a point. (laugh) They know their audience is in a hurry, so they get on with it, they cut corners. And actually death panels is a really good example of a corner cutting. It's a phrase which very quickly cuts to the chase, exaggerates its point but gets it out in a couple of words, and -- and it works. And that's one of the things orators do, orators exaggerate.

  • 11:31:02

    THOMPSONYou know, you don't, if you're trying to defend someone in court, you don't bring up all their bad points, you just focus on their good points and so on. So in many ways I think the essential elements of what's happening were understood by the Greeks. What they wouldn't, I think, have realized is at a point in the future, words and ideas and indeed images could travel around the world in microseconds and that there could be a kind of gigantic acceleration of the way in which words interact with people, how they share them and how they get changed and distorted through that process.

  • 11:31:44

    THOMPSONSo I think that, you know, the really big difference between now and then is just -- is mass communication and the sheer speed and transparency with which words fly around the world.

  • 11:31:54

    MARTINEZI'm A. Martinez. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. If you'd like to join us, give us a call, 800-433-8850, that's 1-800-433-8850. Or send an email to drshow@wamu.org, or find us on Facebook or Twitter, as well. Let's go out to James (PH) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. James, you're on the Diane Rehm Show.

  • 11:32:17

    JAMESYes, thank you. My question for your guest is I've heard the word conascension, sort of the opposite of condescension, floating around the Internet. I think it's a neologism that describes sort of a sneering disdain for people who are perhaps more accomplished or more successful, something to the effect of tall poppy syndrome. As a community college education and English teacher, I'm interested to have your guest's take on whether he thinks is relevant to the current conversation about language and expertise in general.

  • 11:32:50

    MARTINEZAll right, James, thanks for the phone call. Mark?

  • 11:32:52

    THOMPSONI think -- I think it's a really interesting -- it's a really interesting point, James, and it seems to me that what's happened is, you know, there's a kind of fault, I mean there's fault on both sides. I think the elites, politicians, some of the experts who create policy, have probably not tried hard enough to explain policy to ordinary people and have lost a sense of relationship and a duty of responsibility of explanation.

  • 11:33:25

    MARTINEZAnd using words that people understand, too, that generally people understand.

  • 11:33:28

    THOMPSONI think that's right.

  • 11:33:28

    MARTINEZThat's why -- go back to death panels. It makes it -- for someone that wants to argue against the Obamacare, that is easy to understand, it's easy to say, right, it's easy to kind of get your point across.

  • 11:33:39

    THOMPSONI think that's right, and I would say, I mean, another simple example, most -- most of the West's elites believe that free trade is a good thing, that opening up international trade in goods and services is good for economies, all boats rise in the end. They -- it's decades since people have made the argument in favor of free trade, and if you've -- if you think your job's at risk, and your own and your family's livelihood is at risk because of globalization, free trade does not feel like a good thing.

  • 11:34:11

    THOMPSONSo in the absence of an explanation, people will absolutely think about protectionism and the fight against free trade. But I also think, I think the point that the celebration of a lack of expertise, the loss of a sense of true authority and bogus authority, I think we can see that in the debate about vaccines, where TV celebrities' views about vaccine are treated by some -- some people as if they were as serious as those of doctors.

  • 11:34:39

    THOMPSONSo I think -- I think of it as both a kind of breakdown and a failure by elites, but also I do think out there is a sense of a kind of glorification sometimes of the -- of the absence of expertise, in other words of ignorance.

  • 11:34:56

    MARTINEZOur guest is Mark Thompson. He's president & CEO of The New York Times Company. His new book is called "Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics." Now we've mentioned Donald Trump a lot. Let's talk about Hillary Clinton for a second, her rhetorical skills. How does her use of political language compare with Trump's?

  • 11:35:14

    THOMPSONWell, if Donald Trump feels like the epitome of a politician who kind of shoots from the hip and just -- just says -- says what he feels, I think Hillary Clinton, it's fair to say, feels like the most carefully prepared political speaker that's ever been, with everything weighed and no doubt tested, tested with audiences and so based on a kind of empirical analysis of what's likely to work with voters and all the rest of it.

  • 11:35:50

    THOMPSONAnd it's astonishingly polished. It's more straightforwardly, significantly richer in terms of policy detail than Donald Trump's speech is, but, I mean, what -- I'm going back to Aristotle. Aristotle says that persuasion has got a number of elements. It's got logos, which means argument, evidence, the facts. It's also got ethos, though, the character, the impression that the speaker makes, and pathos or pathos, the mood of the listeners, the mood of the crowd, the emotional reaction of the crowd.

  • 11:36:28

    THOMPSONAnd it seems to me that Hillary Clinton's rhetoric is very, very loaded toward logos, and, you know, the sense of character sometimes maybe is not given enough because it's so carefully prepared, it's so controlled. Sometimes the sense of her character doesn't come across. I talk in the book about...

  • 11:36:51

    MARTINEZIs there a detachment? Do people have trouble attaching to it?

  • 11:36:56

    THOMPSONSo I -- the way I think about this is I had a -- a chance to talk to Hillary Clinton at some length privately, and she comes across as a very funny, self-deprecating, wise, mischievous person, you know, really very good company. And I talk about Mark Leibovich, one of my colleagues at the Times, who had a very similar experience talking to Hillary off the record, and it going so well, he said, well, let's go on the record. And the moment they went on the record, it became a stiffer, a more formal, much more guarded....

  • 11:37:31

    MARTINEZIt's amazing how that works. Mark Thompson's new book is called...

  • 11:37:33

    THOMPSONBut I have to tell you.

  • 11:37:33

    MARTINEZHold on, hold that thought, Mark. "Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics." More with Mark Thompson coming up in just a bit. I'm A. Martinez, in for Diane Rehm.

  • 11:40:01

    MARTINEZWelcome back. I'm A. Martinez of Take Two, on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. My guest is Mark Thompson, president and CEO of The New York Times Company. His new book is called, "Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics." And Mark, earlier you were finishing up a story about Hillary Clinton and the differences in the words she uses on and off the record.

  • 11:40:23

    THOMPSONAnd we were saying that on the record she sometimes becomes a much more guarded person. I think it's fair to say, you know, after decades of exposure to the media and being picked up on, you know, every single word that she utters, maybe that's not surprising. And one of the things I cull from my book, is a kind of demilitarization between the media and politicians. You know, the fact that politicians can't…

  • 11:40:58

    MARTINEZHow is that gonna happen, Mark?

  • 11:40:59

    THOMPSONWell, that's very interesting. But I think that both between politicians themselves and the media and politicians, if we turn the public off politics completely, if no politician is ever allowed to be themselves or ever allowed to get policy across, you know, it's not gonna work. And it, by the way, won't make great TV, radio or kind of, you know, smartphone viewing either. And I think the -- and not because people, I'm asking people to suddenly sort of, you know, become saints.

  • 11:41:28

    THOMPSONBut simply on the basis of reciprocal altruism, it makes practical sense for politicians to give each other a bit more space. And I think also for the media just to let, in a sense, political ideas breathe a bit more before jumping on them.

  • 11:41:42

    MARTINEZLet's go out to David, in Mill Valley, Calif. David, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:41:47

    DAVIDYes, thank you. Good morning. This is all very interesting. And I just want to preface kind of the point I want to make and the question I want to put to Mr. Thompson, is it, yeah.

  • 11:42:00

    MARTINEZIt is Mr. Thompson, Mark Thompson, yes.

  • 11:42:01

    THOMPSONYes, it is, yeah. It's Mark.

  • 11:42:02

    DAVIDMark Thompson, yeah. Is that I read The New York Times acidulously and I use an awful lot of words in my life. And I believe in the power of words. But I feel like the kind of crisis in political communication that's going on right now and has for some time, really goes to the problem of words themselves, that -- and I'll try to cut to the chase here, which is that people feel like life -- like political life is out of their control and that they -- that the local communities and the people who live in them, as we all do, really don't have much control over what goes on.

  • 11:42:42

    DAVIDAnd increasingly, there's, you know, a big federal government or even a state or local government or, in Europe, you know, the European parliament that can make decisions and have policy that drastically affect their lives and how they can organize their lives. And that really what we're seeing is a crisis in the political system that we have. There, you know, you see something like Hillary recently saying that 50 percent of Trump's supporters are the deplorables.

  • 11:43:17

    DAVIDAnd I'm sure that was a moment where, as you were just talking about her preparation, kind of failed her and she said, you know, used a word that, you know, is trying to be kind of neutral, but ended up, you know, biting her back.

  • 11:43:32

    MARTINEZDeplorables doesn't sound neutral to me.

  • 11:43:35

    DAVIDNo.

  • 11:43:35

    MARTINEZThe word itself.

  • 11:43:36

    DAVIDAnd there was also -- there was also a recent article in the Times about an interview with a woman in Kentucky, in Appalachia, saying that, yes, Trump is dangerous, but he'll shake things up and we need to shake things up. And I think there's a -- even across the political spectrum there's a lot of feeling that, you know, life is increasingly out of our control as local communities and once politicians get in there and they've got formal power, they can do anything they want and whatever we have to say about it doesn't matter very much.

  • 11:44:12

    DAVIDSo, I mean, I could go on about this, but I'm just having to -- have the opportunity to speak here is kind of getting me to coalesce my thoughts a little bit. But what do you think about that? That language in general, it's not reality. And, you know, it's not truth. Truth is something else that's in people's experience. And language and experience have this increasingly large gap, which is one reason I think people don't care about truth or science or facts anymore.

  • 11:44:35

    MARTINEZDavid, thank you very much for the phone call. Mark, he did say something interesting about how language and truth aren't necessarily the same thing.

  • 11:44:42

    THOMPSONI think what he said was very interesting indeed, actually. I think Dave's, no, Dave's point I thought -- I, really, I empathize with everything he said. In other words, the -- a gap has opened up between the kind of discourse, what people -- the political ideas and opinions and statements that the public hear about stuff, about policy, about the economy, about their lives and so forth. And the reality that they experience.

  • 11:45:12

    THOMPSONAnd I think that gap is dangerous for democracy. I'm not claiming that there's ever been perfection here, but I think the sense that politicians are finding it harder to find words which connect with and express people's real feelings is true. Now, I don't think we should despair. I think we can still see examples where there can be breakthroughs. And I think that a very interesting example in recent years was the debate about same-sex marriage.

  • 11:45:45

    THOMPSONWhich, for quite a while, felt like it was gonna be one of these difficult values debates, which was gonna go on and on and on. But once the proponents of same-sex marriage found a language of, as it were, civic fairness, that this is simply about, you know, shouldn't adults of the same sex be able to enjoy the same rights that adults of different genders can do, in respect to marriage. There was kind of a breakthrough. And it felt like a breakthrough based on the experience of many individuals. And individuals from conservative, as well as liberal backgrounds, of friends and family who were going through the process of same-sex partnership.

  • 11:46:25

    THOMPSONAnd it felt like suddenly the argument clarified. And although I know the battle's not over, suddenly there was a dramatic movement, not just across America, but across the Western world on that topic. So sometimes, I think, there can be a grassroots moment where there is a genuine connection between the discourse of political leaders, of leading constitutional lawyers and ordinary people, many ordinary people. But it's, I'm afraid, becoming rare, I think.

  • 11:46:52

    MARTINEZYou mentioned how all this for you is possibly dangerous for democracy. What danger does democracy need to be concerned about?

  • 11:47:03

    THOMPSONWell, I think democracy, particularly representative democracy, does depend on trust. And we choose political leaders and we trust that they will act on our behalf, they will act understanding our issues, understanding our problems, understanding our aspirations. And the -- even though they'll be doing the work, they'll be making the political decisions, you know, they're doing it in a way which -- they're using their own judgment, but they're also doing it cognizant of and understanding what we want.

  • 11:47:38

    THOMPSONAnd once that starts straining, once you begin not to believe that's possible to think that the federal government is not "We the people," but is actually a distant alien body or you think the decisions in your country about what's gonna happen on the ground in, let's say in the United Kingdom, are really gonna be decided by bureaucrats in Brussels, in continental Europe rather than in London or anywhere else in the UK, the risk is that your faith in the whole system begins to come under question.

  • 11:48:12

    THOMPSONAnd you either give up, stop voting 'cause you think it's pointless or you become prone to believe someone who says I'm gonna break the whole thing. I don't stand -- I hate all these people. I'm gonna break the entire system. And there are, you know, bad examples in history and in modern history, in the 1920s and 1930s when conventional politics, partly because of the Great Depression, was under great suspicion and people had kind of given up hope in mainstream parties. You know, we saw the rise of Fascism and other more extreme forms of politics, based partly on a feeling that regular democratic politics couldn't do it anymore, couldn't really understand what ordinary people wanted.

  • 11:49:00

    MARTINEZYou mentioned same-sex marriage. Let's flip to climate change, the debate over climate change. What role does language play in that?

  • 11:49:09

    THOMPSONWell, I want to say that, you know, the people who study (unintelligible) have always thought the role of authority was important, the expert witness in court who really, you know, you listen to because they've been trained, they really know what they're talking about. And climate change is very interesting. Because although actually whether or not the Earth is getting warmer and whether that change is because of human activity is a scientific matter.

  • 11:49:36

    THOMPSONIt's not a political opinion matter, it's a scientific matter. But often in our debate about climate change, it's discussed as if it was a matter of political opinion and the…

  • 11:49:49

    MARTINEZAll the time. That's all I hear, yeah.

  • 11:49:52

    THOMPSONAnd there's something about, you know, a world -- I talk about vaccinations in the same way -- where we get back to a sensible, ordered idea of authority. I think it means that scientists, doctors and others, had better remember that they are experts and not behave and talk as if they're politicians. I think, in the end, I think it's a mistake when scientists overplay their hand and they start talking about public policy as if they were political advocates.

  • 11:50:26

    THOMPSONI think once you get from the language of expertise -- the dispassionate language of expertise to advocacy, the risk is, in a sense, you let in the skeptics. 'Cause if scientists behave like advocates, why shouldn't other advocates, you know, behave as if they're scientists? So I think, in a way, experts -- expertise in its proper role and then once you -- once we've got the facts straight about climate change, let's then -- let's have a political debate about what to do about them.

  • 11:50:53

    MARTINEZLet's go to Marissa in Seal Beach. You're on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:50:57

    MARISSAHi. Good morning. My question to Mr. Thompson is with the current state of political language and the shift you've been seeing in various international elections and the focus on campaigns through social media, especially Donald Trump running his campaign through Twitter, where do you see political language shifting to in the future? What direction do you see it going in?

  • 11:51:25

    THOMPSONWell, that, again, that's a very interesting, a big question, Marissa. I mean, I think the current -- many of the current trends we're seeing are negative. I think it's just a fact of life. I think that the brevity of platforms like Twitter -- I think something we haven't talked about, which is the vitriol of the anonymous internet and social media. The kind of extremity of insulting and bullying language.

  • 11:51:52

    MARTINEZTrolls, internet trolls.

  • 11:51:55

    THOMPSONThe trolls, but that's kind of -- it's begun to infect the way politicians themselves speak. The strength of the insults in the current presidential campaign, in particular for Donald Trump, but not exclusively to Donald Trump, by any means, feels like a new and untoward development. So I think we're seeing a lot of negative trends. I think if you look over history, though, I think this feels to me like a period of disruption. That politics has got disrupted after -- particularly after the end of the Cold War.

  • 11:52:28

    THOMPSONIt's less class based, it's less ideologically based, it's become more personal. Media, particularly legacy media, is clearly being massively disrupted. And so to me it's a period of disruption. In the past, the periods of disruption have often been then followed by, you know, a period of a new equilibrium, where a new set of conventions emerges, people understand that if they don't let other people speak and have a civilized debate, they won't be allowed to do so themselves.

  • 11:53:02

    THOMPSONAnd so typically you get some kind of historically -- I talk about being the Civil War period where it was an incredibly disrupted public language, and then, you know, two or three generations later it stabilizes again. So I think we should, you know, human beings are not, you know, we're not stupid. We know we have to get on with each other. We know we have to get the job done. We know we need sensible politics to, you know, to achieve a better world and so forth. And my hope is that at some point in the future we'll achieve a new equilibrium. I'm just afraid, Marissa, I just can't tell you when that's gonna be.

  • 11:53:36

    MARTINEZI'm A. Martinez. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Our guest is Mark Thompson. His new book is called, "Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics." Mark, you mentioned that we're not stupid. I don't know, when I see some social media posts I question that statement, but isn't up to us to cut through all this or is that asking too much of us?

  • 11:54:00

    THOMPSONWell, I think, look, when I say we're not stupid, I think we're all -- all of us are capable of doing stupid things. And some people seem capable of doing stupid things most of the time. So there's a kind of -- there's some kind of bell curve out there on stupidity. But I -- what I mean by that is essentially most people most of the time don't want to shout or become incandescent with rage, don't want to insult their neighbors, the people in whose community they live alongside and so forth.

  • 11:54:27

    THOMPSONAnd I think the, you know, some of this is about, you know, over time getting used to new media and, you know, when people abuse it, ignoring them. And, you know, the time of the English civil war, pamphlets, political pamphlets printed overnight with excessive, extremist language could be really influential because people took them seriously. They saw something printed -- and in those days if you saw something printed you thought it must be true.

  • 11:54:56

    THOMPSONWithin a few decades people have got used to pamphlets and they have much, much less impact. And they cause much less harm in a sense, the offensive ones. And over time I think we will acclimatize, you know, just as, you know, we've always known that certain obscene graffiti you see, which kind of ignore. It's part of life. Somebody wrote it. You don't want to look at it, don't look at it.

  • 11:55:19

    THOMPSONAnd I think over time we'll learn not to take, you know, in a sense, some of the offensive things you might see on Facebook or Twitter or, you know, elsewhere on social media, not to take it too seriously. And to concentrate more on, you know, the constructive, the positive, the rational, and a bit less on wild language and obscenity and rudeness.

  • 11:55:40

    MARTINEZMark, just about a minute to go here. What do you think -- the debates are coming up. There's gonna be three of them. I'm wondering what language or how language will be picked apart and taken apart and interpreted in the upcoming debates.

  • 11:55:52

    THOMPSONWell, it's so -- we don't know what's gonna happen. It's so interesting. You know, I think if -- your advice to Donald Trump would be be on your best behavior, you know, stick to the script. Hillary, you might -- you almost give the opposite advice to, which is relax, be yourself, you know, live a bit and have some fun with it. But I think what's gonna happen is this is the laboratory and there's gonna be thousands and thousands of would-be experts and commentators teasing apart and analyzing every word, every phrase. And sometimes, as we know, the famous Ronald Reagan interaction with Jimmy Carter, a throwaway phrase, "There you go again," may be the phrase that we remember from one of these debates.

  • 11:56:33

    MARTINEZCan't wait to see. It should be so interesting, but, you know, when it comes to language, I'm hoping that one word or two words from one of the candidates doesn't frame things for me. That's the one thing, Mark, that I'm hoping doesn't happen. I'm trying my best to stay strong and not let that happen.

  • 11:56:47

    THOMPSONI think that's right. It's gonna be very exciting, and in some ways entertaining, but it really matters. So let's keep our fingers crossed that it's a good process.

  • 11:56:54

    MARTINEZAll right. That's Mark Thompson. He's president and CEO of The New York Times Company. His new book is called "Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?" Mark, thank you very much for joining us.

  • 11:57:04

    THOMPSONThank you.

  • 11:57:07

    MARTINEZI'm A. Martinez of "Take Two," on KPCC, Southern California Public Radio, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thank you very much for listening.

Related Links

Topics + Tags

Comments

comments powered by Disqus
Most Recent Shows

The Tuskegee Study, 50 Years Later

Friday, Jul 29 2022Fifty years after the Tuskegee study, Diane talks to Harvard's Evelynn Hammonds about the intersection of race and medicine in the United States, and the lessons from history that can help us understand health inequities today.

Jan. 6 And The Ongoing Threat Of Right-Wing Extremism

Friday, Jul 15 2022What's happened to groups like the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys post-January 6, and the ongoing threat of far-right extremism in this country. Diane talks to Sam Jackson, author of "Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group"