The Power of Political Catchphrases

Do you ever notice politicians repeating certain phrases or concepts like:

  • “Small business owners…”
  • “We need to get this country back on track.”
  • “For me it’s not business as usual.”
  • “The middle class…”
  • “Teachers are the foundation of this country.”

Words have a certain power and in the political sphere they carry an even greater weight. Politicians use certain phrases and speak highly of certain groups, like teachers or small business owners, because they’re expected to. They would lose points if they didn’t. They speak about family values and American values. They go on about America being the greatest country in the world and the hard work of its citizens. It’s the same things we hear over and over.

Last year Psychology Today wrote about the effect certain political phrases have on us. Words like “capitalism” received a majority positive reaction in their study, while most saw “militia” as a negative word. And it’s no surprise that Republicans react more negatively to the word “socialism” than Democrats do. That’s why certain parties will use and overuse particular words and phrases for the negative effect they have on their opposition. Or for the positive effect they have on the general population. Who doesn’t want to support someone who cares about values or children or small business owners?

Jesus Christ never said things to win points or to try to make himself look good. On the contrary, Jesus spoke the truth and wasn’t much liked for it. The scribes and pharisees tested him on the issues like divorce or taxes. When Jesus forgave sins they said things like, “Who is this man who speaks such blasphemy!” (see Luke 5:21) He refused to perform miracles for the sake of “proving himself”. Though the law required the stoning of an adulterous woman, Jesus did not condemn her. He ate with “unclean” outcasts. He “broke” the sabbath law. He told the rich to give their things to the poor. For all this, Jesus was not popular with those in power. Not once did he say things that submitted to the status quo or popular expectations. And he was killed for it.

There’s a Jesuit principle called eloquentia perfecta. It’s a rhetorical tradition that calls for reason, the right crafting of words to express an idea, and graceful communication so that others will want to listen. It’s about serving the common good rather than puffing oneself up. Jesus knew his audience and he knew how to craft his message for them without giving in to their expectations or falling back on “feel-good” catchphrases. Unfortunately, there is no political candidate today who avoids effort to say the “right” thing to win points from voters. He or she wouldn’t win otherwise.

Sadly, a Jesus-figure in today’s political world would not be accepted. But that’s okay, because in the eternal realm (which is current and present for us even right now—eternal includes now, doesn’t it?), Jesus is the figure worth following. He points us to God the Father—not himself—and also reminds us of the radical counter-cultural way that, despite current earthly politics, we can live out now.

>> An aside: Freakonomics produced a fascinating podcast on political media bias and some commonly-used liberal and conservative phrases.

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