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Jeb Bush and the Politics of Imprecision

Presidential hopeful Jeb Bush probably won't say much in his speaking tour. That's because in politics, vagueness is key.
Jeb Bush speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Jeb Bush speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (unofficially) set out on the long campaign trail toward the 2016 Republican presidential nomination this morning with a speech at the Detroit Economic Club. Bush’s speech made mention to his “right to rise” plan, an initiative targeted at Detroit’s struggling middle class, which hasn’t bounced back from the 2008 recession as quickly as most of the United States. (He's also gunning for millions in campaign contributions from wealthy Michigan residents, money that likely would have been made out to Mitt Romney, had he not pulled his name from the race last week.)

Bush’s comments were, in a word, vague:

Roughly two out of three American households live paycheck to paycheck. Any unexpected expense can push them into financial ruin. We have a record number of Americans on food stamps and living in poverty. So the central question we face here in Detroit and across America is this: Can we restore that dream — that moral promise — that each generation can do better?

Bush's sweeping, generally positive statements were non-specific by design; his own aides said as much. Calculated ambiguity is not a new political strategy by any means. As Lloyd S. Etheredge, then a political science professor at MIT, wrote in 1976: “Indeed the political world often seems as if it were a collective dream: precision, rigor, careful explanation of one’s views, formal, systematic, and logical analysis are almost absent.”

Political language is, by nature, mystifying. In the end, it's also not at all helpful to individual voters. In 1985 Murray Edelman wrote in Political Science & Politics:

Perhaps the most striking way in which political language detracts from people’s ability to pursue their own interests effectively is the irrelevance of most political news and debate to the quality of people’s lives. We are inundated with accounts and discussions of election campaigns, legislative debates, and the statements of high officials, but none of these means anything at all for how well people live until they are implemented; and the forms of eventual implementation, or whether is will occur at all, cannot be known from the publicized language.

Why do politicians speak so vaguely?

Multiple theories have been put forward, many of which were outlined in Etheredge’s 1976 article. Some people blame the speaker (political language is vague because politicians are unintelligent or narcissistic), others blame politics itself (“political language is vague because political issues are vague”), sometimes society itself (“political language is vague because of the speed of modern society”).

Recent research shows that politicians use vague words and phrases—like “Freedom,” “Equality,” and “The American Dream”—because they evoke an emotional response. Emotive words can influence our feelings toward politicians and their proposed policies, and, in the end, how we vote. In a 1997 study that asked participants if they would support a new law legalizing political rallies held by hate groups, only 45 percent said yes when the questions began, “Given the risk of violence...” When the question was phrased, “Given the importance of free speech...,” the number of people in favor of the new law jumped up to 85 percent.

Beyond a gut reaction to proposed policies, individual voters will interpret—sometimes even misconstrue—the intentions of the policies to be in line with their own beliefs and intentions, according to a paper presented at the 2014 VIM Conference at McMaster University. In other words, we hear what we want to hear.

These early campaign speeches are a place for candidates like Jeb Bush to test out their message—and it’s wording—on audiences, according to Michael Traugott, a political scientist at the University of Michigan. “[Bush is] also measuring crowd reaction, audience reactions, and there are others in the audience like contributors that are looking to see how well others respond to his message,” Traugott says.

It seems that politicians purposefully use vague and emotionally charged phrases to their own benefit, and so the more important question might be: Why do we let them?