Politics 101

My research did not include specific analyses of how metaphors are used in politics.  However, I can provide a short summary of the current research on this topic and how metaphors are understood by native English speakers.  I will also include below a synopsis of the problem of whether or not political metaphor usage prevents immigrants with limited English fluency from participating in the American political process. Works cited in this section are all included on my bibliography page.

Metaphors in Politics

A review of the literature indicates that linguists agree that metaphors are not only commonly used in politics, but that politicians use them to their advantage whenever possible.  For example, Gibbs (1994, p. 140) writes, “Contemporary political discourse is packed full of metaphors, many of which reveal important aspects of the figurative nature of political thought. Many of the metaphors used in politics draw heavily and systematically on the languages of sports and warfare.”  He argues further that, “Sports and warfare metaphors are not just rhetorical devices for talking about politics, for they exemplify how people ordinarily conceive of politics. Because these conceptual metaphors reflect unconscious schemes of thought, people are often unaware of the metaphorical nature of their speech, which can mislead them about the consequences of these metaphors.”  Moreover, Mio (1997, p. 124) notes that warfare metaphors may have a gender bias in that their usage may exclude women from the political discussions.

In the 1990s, George Lakoff wrote several commentaries on how political metaphors were used by the U.S. government to support the Gulf War.  He argued (Lakoff, 1994, p. 243) that government officials often use the metaphor THE STATE IS A PERSON and thus nations can be described as being “friendly” or “hostile.”  We may also use a fairy tale metaphor in which there are clear victims, villains and heroes.  “Thus, the United States and allies in the Gulf War were portrayed as having “rescued” Kuwait. As President Bush said in his address to Congress, the issues couldn’t have been clearer: Iraq was the villain and Kuwait, the victim” (Lakoff, 1994, p. 243).

These political metaphors are not only used in American politics, but are common all over the world.  In a recent anthology of articles about European politics, Political language and metaphor: Interpreting and changing the world edited by T. Carver & J. Pikalo (2008), the authors find evidence similar to that of Gibbs or Lakoff and Johnson.  For example, Stenvoll (2008, p. 36) writes, “Language use, including the use of metaphor, is analysed as an instrument of power, as something that political actors ‘stand outside’ (to use a conventional metaphor) and may use to communicate, legitimate and/or mask political interests.”

Ringmar (2008, p. 57) writes, “Indeed in politics metaphors are often tools employed by elites to stifle critique and to keep people in their places.” He agrees with Lakoff and Johnson that metaphors can both highlight and obscure aspects of reality.  “For political scientists, the comparative study of metaphors provides a new and hitherto largely unexplored way of understanding the similarities and differences in the way political systems are conceptualised” (Ringmar, 2008, p. 58).  Vertessen and De Landtsheer (2008, p. 273-4) argue that metaphors appeal to pathos, logos and ethos.  In other words, the use of metaphorical expressions appeals to our emotions, our sense of logic and our ethics.  They note how Hitler incited fear and hatred by referring to enemies as dangerous diseases and deadly plagues.

Mio (1997, p. 118) notes how metaphors are used in politics to make complex issues understandable, and are especially effective in difficult times when the public needs to believe that the government is taking care of the problems.  However, he questions the effectiveness of metaphors in changing the minds of voters.  He cites research that suggests most Americans are not that interested in national news and that metaphors are only successful when targeted at those who were politically sophisticated.

Political Metaphors in the News

Most people learn about political events and processes by watching television news.  A smaller minority may read news magazines or daily newspapers.  In these days when people are constantly watching television, national news shows become a prominent source of news about politics. Mio (1997, p. 115) points out that the national media has a dual role of both “informing the public about political events and providing feedback about the public sentiment.”

Gibbs (1994, pp. 123-124) notes that metaphors are constantly being used in news broadcasts. In one study, it was found that a metaphor was used every 25 words, and in another, U.S. senators used novel metaphors every two to three minutes in Congressional debates.  The high number of metaphors and other figurative language used in politics is illustrated by the recent publication of several reference guides on these topics which cover thousands of examples of slang, idioms and metaphors.   I have consulted such works as Barrett’s The Oxford Political Dictionary of American Slang (2008), McClean and MacMillan’s Oxford’s Concise Dictionary of Politics (2009) and Safire’s Political Dictionary (2008).

Metaphor Comprehension

Given the high frequency of metaphor usage in the news, one important issue to consider is how native English speakers understand metaphors.  In the early days of metaphor research, it was assumed that literal statements were easier to understand than metaphorical ones.  However, this literal/figurative dichotomy proved to be a false assumption (Lakoff, 1993, p. 204). A considerable amount of research has shown that, in many cases, statements with metaphors can be understood as quickly and easily as literal statements (Gibbs, 1993; Gibbs, 1994; Glucksberg and Keysar, 1993; and Ortony, 1993b).  Gibbs (1994) noted that there seems to be no noticeable difference in the cognitive processing time of idioms, irony, sarcasm or metaphors when compared to literal statements.  Glusckberg and Keysar (1993, p. 406) write, “metaphor comprehension seems no different in principle from understanding utterances literally. “

However, both Gibbs (1994) and Fraser (1993) demonstrate that metaphor comprehension is correlated to the amount of context provided, i.e., the more context included with a metaphorical expression, the more easily it was understood. Ortony (1993b) also writes that, even though metaphors and similes are processed in a similar manner to understanding literal language, the knowledge of the topic facilitates the comprehension of the metaphors. Miller (1993) also found that comprehension of metaphors depended on the general knowledge and beliefs of the reader.

In summary, it seems evident that metaphor usage is very common in the English language, and that metaphors are used with some degree of effectiveness by politicians to achieve their political goals.  Moreover, metaphors are commonly used in everyday news broadcasts as a matter of general English usage.  It also seems clear that native English speakers have no trouble understanding these metaphors, especially if they are interested in politics and have sufficient background knowledge to understand the context in which the metaphors are used.  However, one of the main reasons I wrote the book was to help non-native English speakers make sense of these thousands of metaphors used in such high frequency in normal political discourse.

In my own experience teaching ESL for almost 30 years, idioms and metaphors are the most difficult English expressions to learn.  Even immigrants who have lived in the United States for years have trouble understanding figurative language in everyday English.  As one illustration, my wife related this story to me one day a few years ago. She was having her nails done by a Vietnamese man at a local manicure shop.  The news broadcaster on the television mentioned something about “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”  The man asked my wife why they kept referring to that address on the news.  She explained that it was the address of the White House where the president lives.  Frustrated, he asked, “Why don’t they just say that?”

This type of incident is not uncommon.  Many immigrants do not have the luxury of studying English for many years.  Although many community colleges offer free ESL classes, many immigrants are very busy people, often working two or three jobs to support their families.  Even if they can attend these classes, in most ESL programs, courses designed to help students learn metaphors are only available in large programs and at the highest levels of study.  Most handbooks on teaching English as a second or foreign language do not even mention metaphors.  Boers (2000) discusses the challenges of English language learners understanding metaphors.  Littlemore (2001) noted how difficult it was for foreign-language speakers to understand metaphors since they often did not have the necessary background information.

To understand this problem in more depth, we must consider the degree to which naturalized citizens are involved in the American political process.

Participation of Immigrants in the Political Process

According to the 2010 census 12.8% of the U.S. population is foreign-born (http://quickfacts.census.gov/ qfd/states/00000.html). Given a total population of 308,745,538 people, the number of immigrants would be close to 40 million people.  Moreover, 20.3% of the population has a language other than English spoken at home.  These statistics beg the question if these immigrants are involved in American politics at any level, i.e., if they are registered voters, if they vote, or even if they watch television news broadcasts about local or national elections.

S. Karthick Ramakrishnan completed a thorough study of these issues in his book, Democracy in Immigrant America: Changing Demographics and Political Participation (2005).  Ramakrishnan (p. 8) found that political participation was “integral to the mission of securing an economic foothold in the United States” and “to secure a better life…for themselves and their children.” He also found (pp. 76-77) that first generation immigrants were not very likely to participate in the political process because of strong ties to their home countries and/or linguistic or cultural barriers.  However, second generation immigrants were less likely to identify with their parents’ language and culture and more likely to assimilate into the culture and institutions of the United States.  The absence of language barriers and the political participation of their parents also increased their own participation in politics.  Immigrants who became naturalized citizens had higher levels of participation because of their commitment to living in the United States and their education needed to pass the citizenship exam (p. 78). Ramakrishnan found that “the strongest predictors of participation are age, education, marital status, and residential stability” (p. 81).

Political participation also varied by ethnicity.  Ramakrishnan found that there were differences in immigrants who were in the country for more than 15 years and those who had been there less than that time.  Long term white immigrants had a 31% increase in participation when compared to naturalized citizens who had been in the country less than 15 years.  Long-term Latinos had a 50% increase, while Asians had a 23% increase and blacks had a 26% increase (p. 82).  Immigrants escaping from repressive or communist regimes sometimes had high levels of participation because they had familiarity with government agencies and knew how important politics could be in their lives while others shied away for political participation due to a mistrust of government (p. 88).

Many first-generation immigrants have low levels of English proficiency.  However, they may still be able to participate in voting thanks to multilingual ballots. This seems to be especially true for Hispanics (pp. 98-99).  Ramakrishnan notes, however, that a high proficiency in English is crucial for actively participating in the political process (p. 109).  He also found that participation among Latinos is higher in English-dominant households as compared to Spanish-dominated homes.  Moreover, immigrants with a college education have a 111% increase in the likelihood of participation compared to high school dropouts (p. 110). Participation also increased among immigrant populations when “they felt threatened by various legislative issues at the state and national levels” (p. 135).

Ramakrishnam found among Latinos that language barriers prevented access to the political process in many different ways.  Although Spanish-speaking immigrants might attend political rallies or even work for campaigns, only those with English proficiency would participate in “writing to elected officials, signing ballot petitions and contributing money to political causes” (p. 159).

To sum up, it is clear that naturalized citizens may have great difficulty in becoming involved in American politics because of their backgrounds, ethnicity, age or level of education.  Moreover, a lack of fluency in English may severely impede an immigrant’s ability to take part in political discussions or understand political issues in the news. It is my hope that my book will help some of these naturalized citizens understand the metaphors used in American politics which in turn will help them become more involved in their communities and create better lives for themselves and their children.

7 thoughts on “Politics 101

  1. Its a pleasure to read your words as well as I did remapped my research. I have a question If you have such an idea which would probably push me a head. My question is if I’m writing about problems which are faced by a translator who processing from English into Arabic, is the sentence ( translator from English in to Arabic misunderstanding political metaphor and terminology) a good research problem? and if it is good, could you give me example research questions within the same context?
    I appreciate your effort and previously.
    Hazem J. O. Mayyaleh

    1. Hello Hazem! Great question! I don’t know a lot about translating metaphors into different languages. I know that each language and culture has its own set of unique metaphors and idioms. I would think that many American metaphors would not translate directly into Arabic, especially for those concepts that may not exist in Arabic countries such as American football or baseball. Other metaphors that are specific to American culture may also be lost in translation such as those from business, clothing, or religion. I would love to work with you more on this idea. If you can send me specific questions, I would be glad to help you. Thanks for the great question!

      1. well, Im trying to find out metaphors in Obama’s speechs and how did Arabic translator translated them in Arabic so my question is, you are an American what speeches in your opinion is ovevwhelming of metaphors specially cultural specific metaphors ?

        1. Hello again! I will have to think about your question. I would start with looking at President Obama’s State of the Union Addresses the past few years. I will have a look at those myself this weekend and let you know more details when I have more time to write up a summary for you. I will be back in touch in a few days. Thanks for your great questions!

          1. Hello again Hazem! I am sending you an email with my analyses of several of President Obama’s speeches. Let me know if you get the email and if you have any more questions about translating the metaphors into Arabic.

  2. Hello, Mr. Gallagher! My name is Linh. I am Vietnamese. It’s my pleasure when reaching your blog which is such a useful help for me. I’m working on assignments related to this subject area. I was just wondering about the advantages and disadvantages of using metaphors in political media. Please with all my respects, could you suggest something? Thank you in advance, Mr. Gallagher.

    1. Hello Linh! Thanks for your great question. There is no certain answer about the advantages of using metaphors in speeches or the media. I would point you to two posts I made on this subject a couple of years ago, called “Do metaphors matter?” Sorry I can’t link you to them here (?). You can search for the title and they will pop up. I also recommend the book on metaphors by Jonathan Charteris-Black called Politicians and rhetoric: The persuasive power of metaphor (2nd Ed.).. I have a review on my blog and an Amazon.com that can give you more information. It’s an amazing book. If you have more specific questions after you look at those sources, please let me know. Thanks for reading! Dr. G

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