Why you should care
Because words lift us up where we belong … or drag us down to what we deserve.
Video by Natalie Roe.
The primary season hadn’t managed to kill the television star and, with a firm grasp on the Republican nomination, the man known less for his political expertise and more for his silver-screen persona was speaking on the thorny issue of immigration. But instead of resorting to bromides — words like, say, “great” — he was strikingly articulate when talking about the plight of illegal immigrants.
“Rather than … talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit and then, while they’re working and earning here, they pay taxes here,” Ronald Reagan said. If such nuanced language sounds strangely foreign to you, it’s probably because we haven’t seen it lately.
In fact, the 1980 election — between Reagan and Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter — was the most eloquent presidential race in modern political history.
That’s according to a study by Grammarly, a writing-enhancement app that analyzed debate transcripts going back to 1960. The discovery: Carter and Reagan used a higher percentage of complex sentences than any other candidates in that time period, at 17.3 and 17.2 percent, respectively. Candidates were graded down for using the passive voice or outdated words, and they were rewarded for phrases that were longer but accurately formed. The study found that, in general, both Democrats and Republicans have simplified their pitches over the past half-century. “One was a professional actor, the other a very intelligent and disciplined individual,” says Bob Strong, a Carter researcher and professor at Washington and Lee University. “They were both unusual in American politics in the degree to which they could be very articulate.”
“Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy. And I say this with assurance, because human rights is the soul of our sense of nationhood.”
—Jimmy Carter, December 6, 1978
The two rhetorical equals came from wildly different backgrounds. Carter was a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, a U.S. Navy grad who honed his reading and writing from an early age thanks to caring teachers. Reagan also grew up poor, in small-town Illinois, but his formative adult years were spent in the raised society of Hollywood. “Despite perceptions among liberals at the time that he was a lightweight,” says Reagan scholar Paul Kengor, the Californian was remarkably “well-read and well-informed.” While both could be excellent speakers in the right setting, their different styles were evident. Reagan, the actor, shined most with a script; Carter got tongue-tied until he put away the papers and spoke from the heart. But when they met in that fateful 1980 presidential debate, it wasn’t some moment of soaring speechcraft that was remembered. “There you go again,” Reagan said following a round of negative attacks from Carter, four simple words that, ironically, became the most memorable exchange of the election.
“Next Tuesday, all of you will go to the polls. You’ll stand there in the polling place and make a decision. I think when you make that decision, it might be well if you would ask yourself: Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
—Ronald Reagan, October 28, 1980
It was an “unusual” situation, Strong says, since there was only one debate between the two major candidates, which may skew the study data because of its small sample size (Grammarly did not clarify when asked for comment). And the efficacy of language is a nebulous concept at times, as much in the ear of the listener as anything — the same Grammarly study showed that, while Democrats benefited from using elevated language in 2016, candidates who used simpler language fared better in the Republican primary.
Now, the language used in this election could make your English teacher blush as fiercely as that itchy red pen. Hillary Clinton used complex sentences only 7.87 percent of the time during the primary season. And Donald Trump? His average was 3.3 percent, the lowest on record. And it’s not just bad grammar but also improper form that plagues modern discourse, Strong notes. “I can’t imagine Carter or Reagan having a conversation about the size of their hands, or the respective body parts that are supposed to be reflected by that.” Kengor agrees. “Our tone and substance today are revoltingly bad,” the Reagan scholar adds.