The false simplicity of populist rhetoric

Was AOC's speech really that hard to understand?

A popular language game in the discourse goes something like this. Someone articulates a political position using specialist jargon, or vocabulary that is (say) beyond a standard high school reading level, with long and complex sentences. Response:

  • If one agrees with them, one either ignores how they have articulated themselves, or one praises their brilliance, or sophistication, or eloquence. It becomes proof of the depth and intelligence of their ideas.

  • If one disagrees with them, then the same speech is pretentious, or inaccessible, or incomprehensible. It becomes proof of the vacuousness of their ideas, or their detachment from the ordinary concerns of plain-spoken people.

It’s not difficult to see this playing out in practice. When for example Congressman Adam Schiff delivers an impeachment speech laden with legalese and the archaisms of eighteenth century aristocrats, Jonathan Chait declares that

As a feat of political rhetoric I have never seen anything close to what Schiff has done in the impeachment trial. He’s crafted hundreds of thousands of well-wrought words in a short period of time, and delivered them in highly compelling form.

Compare with Chait’s reaction to Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who delivered a brief speech last night during the Democratic National Convention. As a matter of basic language comprehension, AOC’s language was not particularly inaccessible: the comments he highlights have an IELTS score of about 4-5, meaning they would be understood by people with a limited to modest command of English. But here’s how Chait responded:

I don’t think this rhetoric by AOC is for “millennials” per se. I think it’s for products of elite universities. One difference between AOC and Bernie Sanders is that Bernie tries to express himself in terms that are in common use by working class people.

I don’t think there’s any mystery about why he arrived at such completely different assessments. On one hand, Chait has been extremely sympathetic towards efforts to impeach Donald Trump, and is therefore inclined to aggrandize them in any way that he can. On the other hand, Chait is actively hostile towards AOC’s politics and is therefore inclined to discredit them in any way that he can. None of this has to do with a sound, empirically grounded assessment of the language that Schiff and AOC used and everything to do with politically motivated reasoning.

Yes, it is obviously true that persuasive rhetoric should be accessible to its audience. It is also true that rhetoric laden with obscure or technical jargon is often the sign of a politics aimed at a tiny audience of donors, activists, and media personalities to the exclusion of everyone else. And it’s also true that one can see this pathologically expressed on the liberal-left, for example in the Elizabeth Warren campaign’s compulsive use of the term “Latinx” — one that was popular among the faction of NGO staffers and academics who made up her base, but that only 3% of Hispanics ever use.

Nevertheless, as the right adopts a populist posture in opposition to socialism in the United States, we should not be surprised to see Chait’s kind of spurious objection, utterly detached from how anyone actually uses language, gain currency. It is a form of what Barthes calls “Blind and Dumb Criticism,” which

consists in confessing that one is too stupid, too unenlightened to understand… One mimics silliness in order to make the public protest in one’s favor… To be a critic by profession and to proclaim that one understands nothing about [Marxism]… is to elevate one’s blindness or dumbness to a universal rule of perception, and to reject from the world Marxism…

Thanks to Leonard Pierce for reminding me of this essay.