Over the last week I’ve been reading a book I received as a birthday present – a Penguin Civic Classics collection of great American political speeches. It’s full of stirring stuff, as you might imagine, but the one thing that strikes you straightaway is the complexity, the sophistication of the language and construction, compared with what passes as political discourse today.
Take this, from Patrick Henry’s famous Give me liberty or give me death! speech, delivered on 23 March 1775:
“If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight!”
I doubt you’d see such a gathering of subordinate clauses in any contemporary political oration. And if you thought that was a long sentence, how about this one, from Thomas Jefferson’s first inaugural address, on 4 March 4 1801:
“Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow citizens, resulting not from birth but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them including honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter; with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and prosperous people?”
Compare, just for example, this chunk of Trump, taken from a speech delivered on 3 November 2016:
“The FBI is investigating how Hillary Clinton put the office of Secretary of State up for sale in violation of federal law. The investigation is described as QUOTE “a very high priority.” The investigation is far-reaching and has been going on for more than a year. It was reported that an “avalanche” of information is coming in.The FBI agents say their investigation is likely to yield an indictment.”
68 words; five sentences. Are we becoming (have we become?) a civilisation unable to cope with anything much beyond the simplest of declarative sentences? Or is it more to do with a cultural shift – a genuine democratisation, which means politicians must speak to all, not just their highly educated peers?
Whatever the reasons, KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) seems to have become the de facto standard for communication in the internet age.