Everything Language and Grammar

Symbols of Patriotism, Obama Address to Congress

Posted by languageandgrammar on February 26, 2009

With all due respect to EF Hutton, when President Obama speaks, people listen–well, most people. I didn’t listen to the entire Obama address to Congress; however, I heard an important part of the speech–one that made a fascinating statement about our language and symbols of patriotism.

Surprisingly, perhaps, this post is not about Obama’s much-heralded oratory skills. It’s about how viewers reacted to statements about patriotism.

MSNBC included a real-time gauge of reactions to Obama’s speech by both McCain (remember him–he’s the old, grouchy guy that used to be on tv all the time) and Obama voters. It was displayed in the form of a red line for people who voted for McCain and a blue line for people who voted for Obama. The lines would immediately rise and fall to indicate approval or disapproval.

When I first tuned in, both lines indicated high approval, with the blue line (not surprisingly) slightly higher than the red line. I was startled when the lines temporarily switched places during a part about everyone loving the country and wanting it to succeed. Both numbers were still indicative of high approval, but the McCain voters reacted with slightly more approval than the Obama voters. I didn’t remember exactly what was said, so I reviewed the transcript today.

“There are surely times in the future when we will part ways, but I also know that every American sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed.”

I’d like to think that the slight decrease in approval among Obama voters (and slight increase in approval among McCain voters) was a Democratic party reaction to Obama using the wrong tense–it should have been “there will surely be times” instead of “there are surely times,” but the likelihood of that is as great as the likelihood that we’ll stop referring to problems as “issues” starting tomorrow.

Maybe it was a reaction to statement of political disagreement (“we will part ways”), but I doubt it. If that had been the case, then both sides would’ve reacted more negatively; however, the scale seemed to have indicated that McCain voters liked the line more than the preceding part of the speech, while Obama voters liked it less than the preceding part.

That leaves me to draw one conclusion:  It was a reaction to how we have politicized the language of patriotism in this country.

Republicans have laid claims on linguistic symbols of patriotism, such as “loving the country,” to the point that Democrats react somewhat negatively toward the words, while Republicans react favorably. Democrats are not reacting negatively toward the sentiment (Republicans do not love the country more than Democrats–please), but there is some slight negative connotation associated with the words that the Republicans use to represent themselves–Republican branding, if you will. Obama voters would most likely have had the reaction to the Republican staples of  God, freedom, flags, and family values had they been mentioned.

It’s sad because Obama is correct–Democrats and Republicans alike do love the country and want it to succeed, but to some small degree, Democrats feel that “loving the country” is a Republican line.

For those interested, I wrote about the symbolism of patriotism about a year ago.

–Paul

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