As part of a series on the state of our public discourse, we turned to well-known professor of linguistics and Fresh Air commentator Geoffrey Nunberg for some insight into the way we talk about politics — and the way politicians talk. Nunberg is the author of The Way We Talk Now (2004), Talking Right (2007), The Years of Talking Dangerously (2009) and Ascent of the A-Word (2012), which prominently featured Donald Trump. Kristin Miller talked to Nunberg about the state of political discourse in this new era.
Kristin Miller: What’s new in the way we speak about politics?
Geoff Nunberg: I think what’s interesting is the changing form of public discourse — the sense that the line between public and private discourse has been continually eroding. Partly because the traditional media of public discourse, what people refer to as the mainstream media have to a large extent been decentralized so they don’t have the authoritative place that they did even a dozen years ago. So that public discourse is really taking a very different form now in both the way people conduct it, the language they use and the reasons they have for engaging in it.
…those lines have become blurred, not just in public discourse but in every form of discourse…
— Geoffrey Nunberg
KM: Do you think that we’re harkening back to an earlier time or that this is something totally unexpected and unique?
GN: I think it is genuinely novel in certain ways. The time was when there was distance between public and private discourse that was enormous. Politicians gave speeches to crowds. People talked about those issues among themselves. And those two discourses were very…