Hillary Clinton is the most thoughtful candidate, the most “talkative,” “optimistic” and “positive.” That’s according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal — a newspaper that is not exactly a fan of Clinton.
Offering a textual analysis of “What the Candidates’ Speech Patterns Reveal,” the article concluded that Clinton’s language “indicated more cognitive processing, rather than self-certainty, a signal that a topic is complex. Her language was more optimistic than the others’, and based on the resemblance of her words to those used by previous presidents in their inaugural addresses, she was the most presidential.”
I found this study especially interesting since my dissertation was a textual analysis of Virginia Woolf’s prose style. But you don’t have to be a language geek to notice — in interviews, debates and town halls — that Clinton’s statements are thoughtful, complex and nuanced.
Yet college students, reared on critical thinking strategies, are overwhelmingly flocking to Bernie Sanders, whose distinguishing characteristic in the study was “his self-certainty.”
In fact, a thoughtful mind seems less appealing to many of today’s voters than an authoritative style. “In a campaign season dominated by the lack of nuance,” Rob Eshman, editor of The Jewish Journal, recently wrote, “I wonder whether Clinton’s — and Rosenberger’s [Clinton’s foreign policy advisor] — predilection for nuance, depth and collaboration will help or hurt.”
When I look ahead to upcoming elections, I am more concerned about the choices made by young voters than about any of the others’. As the mother of two millennials, a professor of English and a former child victim of a police state, I am a fierce advocate of critical thinking. I know that bad leaders can turn friends into enemies and relatives into strangers; I experienced such revolutionary reversals in communist Romania along with my family. A baby boomer, I hope that millennials realize that good leaders bring out the best, not the worst in us; unify rather than divide; stimulate rather than agitate; empower rather than dominate.
Fascism and communism, like all dictatorships, are products of black-and-white thinking. I was raised with it in The Socialist Republic of Romania. The heroes were the workers; the villains were the capitalists. As a child I found this ideology compelling. It was as beautiful as a fairy tale. Everything was crystal clear — until my father, formerly a hero, was suddenly arrested as a villain; friends and relatives dropped us; my teachers publically humiliated me, and I became the daughter of a class enemy.
My father, who had fought for socialism, discovered that it was implemented by real human beings and not by cartoon figures. When the heroes took over the government, they started acting like villains. He tried to expose the deception that wrought tragedy on his people, but telling the truth instead of sustaining the narrative landed him in prison.
I don’t know much about Swedish socialism, but when I hear the rhetoric of class warfare, the demonization of some and the elevation of others, the personification of “Wall Street,” “corporate America” “the 1%,” “the big banks” and “the corporate media” as “evil,” “corrupt” and “fraudulent” — when I hear anyone who has dealings with them characterized as “their tools” or even “corporate Democratic whores” — I am reminded of the polarizing language around which I grew up.
Such terms, I learned in school after I immigrated to America, are examples of “faulty generalizations,” “catch-all explanations,” “either-or reasoning,” “argumentum ad hominem,” and fall under the category of logical fallacies. I now train students not to commit them and not to trust those who do.
The conflict between a thoughtful mind and an authoritative style goes back to ancient times, and is plainly evident in the literature I teach to my students.
In “Antigone,” written in 441 BCE, Creon is the new “self-assured leader” of Thebes after a period of civil strife. His first decision is to divide rather than to unite his people. He elevates his nephew Eteocles as a friend and denigrates his nephew Polynices as an enemy of the state. The hero is to be buried with honors, the villain “left unburied so men may see him/ripped for food by dogs and vultures.”
Creon’s niece, Antigone, is a thinker and unifier. To her, Eteocles and Polynices “were brothers, one blood, father and mother, the same as mine.” She disregards the edict, declaring that it violates a fundamental individual right: “The laws are not for now or for yesterday/they are alive forever.” Creon sentences her to death. When Creon’s son begs his father to reconsider, Creon accuses him of being Antigone’s tool: “You’re no man. You’re a slave. Property of a woman.”
A brilliant psychologist, Sophocles understands the process that modern psychologists now call “splitting,” a manifestation of narcissistic/borderline personalities. Other people, “even family members, are seen as all good or all evil, idealized or devalued,” explains expert Randi Kreger. “Those who disagree with them are branded as ‘morally evil.’”
Such contrasts may excite young minds, just as words like “revolution” and “change” do. But “change” does not always mean change for the better.
“It turns out that those who inspired the revolutions are not at home in anything except change and turmoil,” writes Boris Pasternak in “Dr. Zhivago,” another classic literary work. “All customs and traditions, all our way of life… has crumbled into dust in the general upheaval and reorganization of society. The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined.”
It is much easier to demolish than to rebuild. Or, as Clinton said during a recent debate, “It is much easier to diagnose a problem than to solve a problem.” I watched her walking on eggshells trying to maintain party unity. “I applaud those who applaud you,” she told Sanders, while also defending herself against his accusations: that while his money is clean, hers is tainted; that while he is pure, she is “in the pocket” of the “fraudulent” “corporations,” “Super PACs” and “big banks.” I heard her declare that she has broken no law, that we have existing, enforceable laws in place and that, above all, “we are a nation of laws.”
And I thought that ultimately, the underlying difference between the two candidates stems from the amount of respect each accords the individual. To be truly capable of repairing the world, you must honor the world within each, and promote fellowship among all — even if that doesn’t make for the sexiest sound bite around.
Irina Eremia Bragin is Engish Department Chair at Touro College, Los Angeles. She is the author of the memoir “Subterranean Towers: A Father-Daughter Story.”