Democratic Leaders’ Language

Politicians are notoriously cunning. To win elections and stay in office, they must convince constituents to vote for them, and there are many opportunities for them to do this. For American presidents, the State of the Union speech is an annual political event whereby they report on the overall well being of the country. Other regular forms of communication include convention speeches, inaugural addresses, and weekly radio addresses. These public communiqués give presidents the opportunity to connect with the American public, promote popular policies, and shape their presidential image. When the country is faced with difficult circumstances, presidents must also persuade audiences to endure hard times and convince them that a particular course of action is the best option. Encoded in these speeches are metalinguistic patterns that shift depending on the political climate. Using texts of presidential speeches, our paper examines how their language varies during times of crisis and non-crisis, specifically during times of war and peace. We assert that during crises, presidents use more formal language to communicate with their constituents and convince them to support potentially costly policies. Furthermore, if presidents can gain and retain the support of the American public, they can win re-election and preserve positive associations with the brand identity of their political party.


Yet we wonder if using more formal discourse is a good strategy for politicians? Formal discourse has a stilted, technical style that is appropriate when there is a need to be precise, coherent, articulate, and convincing to an educated audience. We evaluate the degree of formality in US presidents’ language over time by analyzing their speeches for the years 1790-2014. Presidential speeches were collected from the University of California, Santa Barbara American Presidency Project data. We analyze these texts using an automated linguistics tool for higher-level features of language and discourse called Coh-Metrix. Unlike basic word counting systems, Coh-Metrix relies on more sophisticated methods of natural language processing, such as syntactic parsing and cohesion computation. Preliminary results indicate that indeed presidents’ language is indeed more formal during times of crises. We also are interested in whether or not formality is effective in persuading Americans to support a president’s policies. To measure this, we use data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) to assess presidential popularity. Analyzing language in this fashion can provide useful insights into the most and least effective persuasive strategies as well as demonstrate how language is different in times of war and peace.

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