Political Wordsmithing: The Art of Preserving Options

Photo via National Review podcasts, The Bookmonger, Episode 32: Barton Swaim.

One review of Barton Swaim’s book, The Speechwriter, called it a future “classic on political communication” due to its consideration of off-camera (informal) communication, as well as the high-sounding rhetoric we expect to hear.

In crafting and selling policy in an organization or multi-party setting, leaders must walk a line between offering insight and substance and pinning themselves down with specifics. Going too far in either direction creates problems. In the WaPo review, Carlos Lozada writes:

The nature of politics is to subtract meaning from language, Swaim understands, but he develops a relatively benign philosophy about political speech: “Using vague, slippery or just meaningless language is not the same as lying: it’s not intended to deceive so much as to preserve options, buy time, distance oneself from others, or just to sound like you’re saying something instead of nothing.” And politicians resort to such devices not out of deviousness but simply because every day they must weigh in “on things of which they have little or no reliable knowledge or about which they just don’t care.”

Take that, George Orwell.

via “What it’s like to write speeches for a rude, rambling and disgraced politician.” WaPo

Persuade—but don’t forget kindness

Sick burns, takedowns, and anti-intellectualism are all part of the culture now. They aren’t enough, according to Ryan Holliday, writing on Medium:

As we’ve become more polarized and more algorithmically sorted, we care a lot less about the people who think differently than us and put little effort into persuading them. That’s because persuasion is no longer the goal—it’s signaling. And with signaling, it’s vehemence that matters, not quality.

The constraints of social media also reduce the space for any nuance or qualification you might be inclined to offer; 140 characters or even 240 does not leave much room for humility or kindness. And the desire for viral sharing heightens the need for aggressive, simplistic arguments.

via link.medium.com/ZXEX6JoFxV

Can we work on persuading others–relying on empathy, smarts (sure, but not exclusively) and appeals to our common humanity? This version of civic discourse is kind, not combative.

It’s no less direct, and still aims to privilege “our truth”–using a different tack than we see daily on Twitter and cable news and throughout the comment sections.

Holly’s Diplomacy Advice for Players at Utah Legislature


In case you wondered, Holly Richardson (aka Holly on the Hill) is ever-insightful–a true Utah leader and verifiable promoter of the public interest. Also, she’s an effective communicator worth following whose many accomplishments in business, politics, journalism, and in her own family are all readily accessible.  Check out her TED talk to hear about her life goal to be a mother–and her global efforts to adopt and serve children–including her own 25 children.

Whether you are new to the Utah Legislature–or working to prepare for your own negotiation, take a look at her expert advice in SLTrib. A few highlights:

  • Prepare to be overwhelmed” so stay hydrated and healthy.
  • Hard work is essential, so figure out how to keep going because stamina is rewarded.
  • Remember junior high? Yeah, its like that.” You’ll need to discern between real friends and others playing politics.
  • “You may have the most brilliant bill idea ever conceived but you cannot get it passed by yourself.” Make friends and build coalitions if you want to get stuff done.
  • Ask questions and learn from others. “Don’t be afraid” to not know the answer.
  • “Develop a thick skin” and be ready for criticism and harsh words (just in case.)

How to Argue


I’m a big fan of constructive arguments. Good writing is based on them. (So is good politics.) Even if we don’t change minds–there is something essential in the back-and-forth involved in a sharing of different views.   Or is there?

I’m interested in three main questions relating to this topic:

  • How do we stay informed about issues, ideas, and what’s going on in the world?
  • Is it possible to learn something through debates and direct disagreement?
  • What communication and interpersonal skills are needed to disagree more productively?

Consider  Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate and founder of behavioral economics, in an interview with Krista Tippets’ On Being podcast. His response to her question about how he reads the newspaper–and what can to be done to “change minds”:

What is disappearing, or seems to be disappearing, is a culture of debates between diverse opinions. Whether there is anything that can be done about it, I would say there is something that can be done, but nothing deep can be done, I think. What can be done is superficial, can be very, very useful. Teaching statistics to the young would be useful; teaching economics to the young would be useful; teaching self-critical thinking, or better yet, how to criticize other people, because this is more pleasant and more interesting — those things can be done. You could educate intelligence analysts; you could educate people who feed information to decision makers, to some extent, to improve their product. But those are very marginal improvements. When it comes to the big issues, I’m not very optimistic.

So maybe we can’t change minds.

Then how should we argue? On this point Arthur Brooks offers some very useful ideas. First, let’s reconsider the issue, which is how filter bubbles and social media flame wars and comment threadjacking is overtaking us:

Political differences are ripping our country apart, swamping my big, fancy policy ideas. Political scientists have found that our nation is more polarized than it has been at any time since the Civil War. One in six Americans has stopped talking to a family member or close friend because of the 2016 election. Millions of people organize their social lives and their news exposure along ideological lines to avoid people with opposing viewpoints. What’s our problem?

Brooks agrees with me, at least on this point: we need to encourage disagreement–but find a way to tone down the vitriol.

So what can each of us do to make things better? You might be tempted to say we need to find ways to disagree less, but that is incorrect. Disagreement is good because competition is good. Competition lies behind democracy in politics and markets in the economy, which — bounded by the rule of law and morality — bring about excellence. Just as in politics and economics, we need a robust “competition of ideas” — a.k.a. disagreement. Disagreement helps us innovate, improve and find the truth.

The real issue, according to Brooks, is contempt, “a noxious brew of anger and disgust”–empowered by outrage, hate, screaming matches, and, of course, ideological, tribal, and other differences. How can this be done?  Again, Brooks has ideas (and a book, on the way):

What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better. And that starts when you turn away the rhetorical dope peddlers — the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from the culture of contempt. As satisfying as it can feel to hear that your foes are irredeemable, stupid and deviant, remember: When you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful. Unless a leader is actually teaching you something you didn’t know or expanding your worldview and moral outlook, you are being used.

Key strategies for your next social media post or speech or public interaction:

  • Resolve to treat others with kindness (not contempt).
  • Begin now–even if you have used derisive or demeaning langauge.
  • Use humor, warmth, and ju jitsu-like adaptation toward others who shower you with contempt.

Or, in Biblical parlance–and in the fine tradition of Ghandi–we can love our enemies.

Using Strategies for Teen Girls to Explore Conflict and Confrontation

Many of us are conflict averse, but negotiation research shows that when someone avoids or deflects direct confrontation–facing an aggressive stance–they usually lose.

In an interview with NPR, psychologist Lisa Damour discusses these issues as lived experiences in the lives of adolescent girls. Key takeaways on her possible metaphors and helpful approaches when facing conflict:

  • Be a bulldozer: a direct confrontation, becoming yelling, getting angry, and letting  the othersknow your exact feelings.
  • Turn into a doormat: avoid the confrontation, go home and feel bad.
  • Opt to become a doormat with spikes: apassive-agressive response where you appear to be ok but gossip behind their back.

Damour’s additional option is what she calls “emotional aikido”–“if somebody comes at you, step to the side and let them go past…a tactictal decision to not engage a conflict.” Picking a battle is a useful strategy that adults employ and can be helpful to teens.

As Damour writes in her family NYT column (and she has written extenseivly there, which is worth exploring if you are interested in learning more about her approach as detailed in her book), “diagnosing the problem correctly is critical to chosing the right intervention” and fostering attitudes of “healthy conflict”.




Reading List | Turkmenistan Diplomacy


Perhaps no region is less well known or understood as Central Asia, and particularly the former-Soviet Turkish states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

How can we understand the current role that Turikmenistan plays in Central Asia? High on authoritarianism, frequently seen as weak on human rights, but a critical country geogrpahically and economically–perhaps even the key player in a new “great game” that is being driven by energy and economic development.


Best Books

Sons of the Conquerors by Hugh Pope offers a detailed look at the Turkic peoples and region from the 20th Century in an accessible, informed way. Pope worked as a foreign correspondent as well as directed wrok with the International Crisis Group.

Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia by Alexander Cooley comes from the director of Columbia’s Herriman Institute.  [Amazon]

Inside Central Asia by Dilip Hiro helps to place Turkmenistan within the context of the rich, complex region. In a 2010 interview Hiro notes that “Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s record is mixed.”


Additional Reading

  • Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan by Adrienne Lynn Edgar (Princeton: 2006) (Amazon) where Robert Legvold notes in Foreign Affairs that  this book gets inside the “head scratching mystery” of a country by focusing on the Soviet-era where Turkmen national idenity emerges.
  • Central Asia in World History by Peter Golden (New Oxford World History)


Józef Czapski, an essential Polish diplomat who opposed totalitarianism

If you don’t know who Czapski was, you must. An important artist capable of “bringing Proust to life,”  a national hero, and a public intellectual. He stands as an essential Polish writer and diplomat who sought to change the world through deep engagement with ideas (Proust), history, and sheer spiritual strength in dark times.

On his mission to determine what happened to Polands Reserve leaders during World War II. The answer? Katyń.

“Inhuman Land” is not an easy read. It is not meant to be. It is an exhaustive 435-page witness to official lies and evasions and the methodical murder of Poland’s ruling class, as well as the spiritual and material degradation Communism had wrought on millions of Soviet denizens. Czapski says he had “more and more precise information about those missing, and less and less hope that the Soviet authorities were willing to take an interest in these people’s fate.” Later, he recounts the multilateral betrayal of Poland by its “allies.” Nevertheless, he finds moral action even in the darkest corners of human history.

via Book Review: Shouldering the Century’s Burden – WSJ


Writing in the introduction to Inhuman Land, Timothy Snyder writes:

In communist Poland, as in the Soviet Union, it was illegal to write about the Katyn massacre. Under communism, Czapski’s name was on a special list of those not permitted to publish under any circumstances. Today Poland is sovereign, the truth about Katyn is known, and Czapski is receiving some of the attention he deserves. Some Polish politicians now err in the opposite direction, suggesting that an air accident that killed Poles traveling to commemorate Katyn in 2010 confirmed the eternal martyrdom of the Polish nation. Czapski’s position about Polish suffering was different: rather than treating the victimhood of other Poles as an authorization for falsehood, he turned his own suffering into a search for the truth about those who suffered more than he. He quoted Proust: “Perhaps a great artist serves his fatherland — but can only do so by seeing truth, which means forgetting everything else, including the fatherland.” [22]