David Mark, a leading political analyst, visited Reno last week. Former editor of the website Politix, he is the author of two books, including Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes, a study of political verbiage.
How do you see the Nevada caucuses? Where are they at?
On the Democratic side, that’s a really meaningful caucus, because you get out a lot of labor-organized votes in the Las Vegas area, Clark County. At least that’s what the thinking is. I think you’ll see Democratic candidates spend a lot of time in Nevada—Hillary Clinton, already. I think they want to make it more than just a political ATM where they run through and get a lot of fundraising dollars. That’s one where labor has a disproportionate role in the process, so I think we’ll see Democratic candidates spending a lot of time in the state.
What interests you about language and politics?
Having been a political journalist in one form or another for most of my career, I noticed that a lot of successful politicians—having been rather established in their careers as doctors, lawyers, military officers, successful business executives—when they got to elected office, they all began to speak the same way. And I just had a feeling that when they were in the previous careers, they didn’t talk that way. If they were trying cases, treating patients, business executives dealing with suppliers, commanding troops, down the line, you knew they didn’t speak in the same kind of sound bites. And so I became fascinated, as the years passed, trying to get behind why they were doing it this way, whether they were told to speak this way—which, in many cases, they were, by political consultants and such—or whether they came to it naturally. And I came to conclude that a lot of them actually tried to speak like normal people, but after a year or so with the system in Congress specifically, they would kind of get sucked into the same [habits]. And oftentimes … if they got negative press coverage they weren’t used to, they would become much more guarded and careful in their language. And so it was just fascinating to me to see how they come to evolve from independent operators into sound-bite creatures.
I know it’s only 2015, but what 2016 language are you seeing so far?
It’s funny. Each election cycle brings out its own memorable phrases, whether it’s in 2012 Mitt Romney saying “binders full of women” or in 2008, candidate Obama getting dinged for saying that people in rural areas cling to guns and religion—that’s a paraphrase, but that’s the gist of it. So each election cycle brings out its own new phrases. It’s still early, but a couple that I’ve noticed have caught my attention. One was from Hillary Clinton in her announcement video in which she talks about wanting to help “everyday Americans.” This an updated version of “the common man,” going back to even the Herbert Hoover era in the early days of the Depression and throughout the New Deal. It’s something that politicians and elected officials try to invoke, being in tune, in touch with the common person. There’s no really artful way of saying it. It usually becomes derogatory, but it was interesting to hear Hillary Clinton update it to “everyday Americans.” Another one that has caught my attention is Ted Cruz, the now-famously Republican senator and presidential candidate talk about the sacrifice that he and his family are making to run this campaign. He sent out a fundraising pitch recently in which he talked about the early mornings and the long days and the bad food that he has to eat on the road and the financial, personal sacrifices [he’s] making—in an entirely voluntary endeavor. No one’s forcing him to run for office. It’s sort of his way of playing the victim. … I’m sure there will be many more. A lot of these come out as unforced errors, usually, in the debates where they’re asked a question and they say something in response to questions. That’s what really sets them off and gets them to make some memorable phrase. I think we’ll see in the latter part of 2015 in the early debate season, we’ll hear some more memorable phrases.