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December 14, 2015 OTHER VOICES

The death of political speech as we know it

Dean Pagani

Recent political events suggest that, more than anything, what the American people want is government leaders who simply tell the truth. We have all learned how to decipher purposefully deceptive language and we simply don't have the time for it anymore. We not only want our politics in 140 characters or less, we want candidates to share their true beliefs, even if those beliefs are not supported by facts.

Communications experts often tell clients that audiences respond to leaders who “say what they mean and mean what they say.” Even so, there is the tendency in politics to devise well-tested word formulations meant to steer public debate in one direction or another.

Sometimes these formulations mean just the opposite of what they appear to mean, but they are calculated to win votes. It's this second part of political messaging — the manipulative part — that voters are rejecting as we approach the coming presidential election year.

Knowledgeable observers continue to predict the collapse of the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump, Ben Carson and to a lesser degree, Bernie Sanders. The experts say all three men hold extreme policy positions that make them un-electable.

Some say Trump has no meaningful policy positions at all. What all three do have is an un-restrained willingness to say exactly what is on their mind no matter how unpopular it may be. Their opponents are mostly incapable of doing so, because they have succeeded in politics under the old rules of political communication that require candidates to thread the needle rhetorically, on almost every issue, to appeal to the largest number of potential voters, or to appeal directly to their base.

Something has changed. Politicians have always been known for being slick, or disingenuous with their language, but voters have adapted and can see through it. Even the most practiced politicians realize it. In a recent Republican debate, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) accused former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush of attacking him on his voting record only because Bush's advisers told him it would work. The tactic undercut Bush's authenticity and allowed Rubio to suggest he was telling it like it is.

We might call it the Pope Francis effect. People around the world are responding positively to the Pope because he has made a point of refusing many of the trappings of power and choosing to speak directly about controversial issues. Though many may disagree with him — and his church on many issues — they overwhelmingly appreciate his candor.

Here in Connecticut, the election of Joseph Ganim as mayor of Bridgeport, carries a similar message.

In conventional terms, it is hard to explain the city's willingness to return a former mayor, convicted of corruption in office, to that very same office. On the other hand, what could be more honest than a known felon standing in the public square asking voters to give him a second chance despite everything they know about his past.

Ganim's new deal with the voters of Bridgeport is perfectly clear. They have given him another chance, but if he strays he will be banished for good.

For other reasons, it is unlikely Trump, Carson or Sanders will be elected president, but their communications style is changing the nature of the debate and could influence future candidates, because politicians emulate what works. Candor works.

To paraphrase former president Bill Clinton, we are witnessing the death of political speech as we've known it.

Dean Pagani is a public relations adviser with McDowell Jewett Communications in Hartford.

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