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English Professor Sees Modern-Day Lows in 2016 Presidential Election Campaign Rhetoric

February 8, 2016

Anne Watt Articleimage

Reading Smoke: English Professor Anne Watt has been helping her students dissect political speech and communication for more than 10 years.

From accusations that Martin van Buren wore ladies’ corsets, to poking fun of Marco Rubio’s high-heeled boots, American presidential campaigns have a rich history of low blows.

This election season, however, the insults have reached depths unseen for many decades, according to English Professor Anne Watt, who has taught a course in presidential campaign rhetoric since 2004.

“Things that used to be off limits, just aren’t off limits anymore,” Watt says. From Republican candidate Chris Christie calling President Obama a “feckless weakling,” to Donald Trump’s derogatory remarks about the physical appearance of fellow-candidate Carly Fiorina, many Oval Office hopefuls are gleefully breaking time-honored taboos. “I’ll go further,” Watt says, “It’s outright disrespectful and more openly insulting than we’ve seen.”

Presidential elections in the 19th century were at least as ugly. Then, for example, supporters of John Quincy Adams accused Andrew Jackson of essentially murdering six American servicemen under his command during the War of 1812, while Jackson’s people, in turn, accused Adams of being a “pimp” for the czar of Russia.

A sort of decorum emerged in the 20th century, but Watt believes that has been largely tossed out of the window this season in a popular backlash against “political correctness.” In that spirit, candidates today want to appear brash and insulting. Trump, especially, has blasted into new veins in this direction, clearing the way for his rivals to follow.

According to Watt, another factor accounting for this nasty turn is the prominence of social media, especially Twitter, which limits users to very short remarks of one or two sentences. Candidates can tweet immediately on what their opponents are doing or saying. And the continuous flow of messages encourages them to be shocking to get attention.

Watt calls herself a “generalist,” not an expert on campaign rhetoric. However, more-than-10 years of careful analysis has made her a sought-after source for those seeking insight into political communication. Political journalists Chuck McCutchen and David Mark quote her in a new book, Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech. Well before the election in 2008, she told journalists that then-Senator Barack Obama’s formidable rhetorical skills gave him a clear advantage with all-important independent voters. As for this year’s candidates, Trump has shown impressive strategic skills and Bernie Sanders has been more successful in appealing to voters than expected, but, rhetorically, “all of the candidates have their flaws,” she says.

Watt’s popular political rhetoric course fills up quickly whenever it is offered. She uses Aristotle’s concepts of ethos, pathos, and logos to help her students analyze the political messages they observe. Ethos refers to a speaker’s perceived credibility, logos refers to the logic of her arguments, and pathos refers to the emotions her arguments stir.

“Our students have strong analytical skills already,” Watt says. “I just have to channel them into a new direction.”