After Monday night's presidential debate, most pundits are focusing on who won, who lost, and what it all means for the future of the country. But the only thought that keeps asserting itself in my mind is this: These candidates are terrible at speaking English.
I mean that in the most literal sense possible: They're bad at formulating complete, grammatically correct sentences that effectively carry meaning. And this isn't just a petty complaint about "style" or "form" — it says something bigger about America, and this dumpster fire of an election we're in.
Let's start with Trump. This is a man who only speaks in word salads. Take, for example, the following segment from the debate, where Trump is asked about "stop-and-frisk" policies. When told that the policy was declared unconstitutional, Trump says, "It went before a judge, who was a very-against-police judge." And then he goes on:
"No, the argument is that we have to take the guns away from these people that have them and they are bad people that shouldn't have them. These are felons. These are people that are bad people that shouldn't be — when you have 3,000 shootings in Chicago from January 1st, when you have 4,000 people killed in Chicago by guns, from the beginning of the presidency of Barack Obama, his hometown, you have to have stop-and-frisk. You need more police. You need a better community, you know, relation. You don't have good community relations in Chicago. It's terrible. I have property there. It's terrible what's going on in Chicago." [Donald Trump]
You really have to quote him at length to fully demonstrate the bizarre way in which he speaks. He just strings together concepts as they pop into his head, only barely throwing out undue logical connectors as an afterthought. It's so confusing, we almost need a glossary.
In some ways, of course, Trump's broken English is actually an effective political weapon, one that allows him to connect with his "poorly educated" (his words) base, and to contrast himself with the elites he's running against.
While Trump is in a league of his own, Hillary Clinton certainly has her own problems. Before the debate, some people thought she would boringly recite briefing books while Trump would have the field to himself with rhetorical firebombs. But instead it was as if an infant cut random passages from those briefing books, pasted them together, and then gave them to a confused bystander to awkwardly read aloud for the first time.
"Look, one murder is too many. But it is important that we learn about what has been effective. And not go to things that sound good that really did not have the kind of impact that we would want. Who disagrees with keeping neighborhoods safe? But let's also add, no one should disagree about respecting the rights of young men who live in those neighborhoods. And so we need to do a better job of working, again, with the communities, faith communities, business communities, as well as the police to try to deal with this problem." [Hillary Clinton]
Communities! Faith communities! Business communities! Police! Clinton is a smart person, and she's been in the public eye long enough to be comfortable there. She should be perfectly capable of expressing what she means in complete sentences with appropriate cadence. And yet, it seems she's not.
This is a strange phenomenon, one that not all our modern politicians fall prey to. Ted Cruz, a practiced college debater, is a talented orator. Say what you will about Marco Rubio's tendency to robotically regurgitate talking points, at least it means he speaks in coherent sentences (at least most of the time). And, of course, Barack Obama is a talented writer with a gift for turning a sentence, even on the spot.
This is more than just a stylistic point. Having politicians who speak well makes following politics more pleasant, which is something we should all wish for.
More importantly, the fact that nobody else seems to care much about this points to something worrisome about our political climate. Politicians belting out semi-coherent catchphrases so an audience doesn't have to think too hard is a motif of pop culture, and rightly so. We almost certainly have the most educated electorate in history, so why has it stopped demanding leaders who sound educated? Abraham Lincoln's audience had much, much lower levels of schooling on average than Clinton's or even Trump's, and yet the man from Illinois never felt a need to talk down to them, nor fear that he would pay a political price for refusing to do so.
A society that's used to having things watered down for it will always be lowering the standards it sets for itself. If you need any evidence of this in full effect, just look at our current candidates for the highest office in the land.