Word Choice: “Freedom” Absent from First Presidential Debate, Part of Troubling Trend

Amidst the post-debate spinning and scoring, precious little has been discussed about what Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton said—and didn’t say—in round one. But to his credit, one observer noticed that “The word ‘freedom’ was spoken precisely zero times during the debate.” That seems hard to believe in this “land of the free.” So I checked for myself, and sure enough, “freedom” was nowhere to be found in the debate transcript. The closest either candidate came was Clinton’s promise of “debt-free college.” The candidates’ silence on the significance of freedom—at home and abroad—speaks volumes.

To be sure, words are never more important than actions. Scripture, after all, calls on us to be doers and not just talkers. Jesus shared a parable about two sons—one who said he would work in the vineyard but didn’t, and one who said he wouldn’t but did—to underscore the vast difference between saying something and actually doing something.

What’s true of individuals, in this instance, is true of nations, especially great powers like the United States: Actions speak louder than words.

But words matter, especially a president’s words. Using language to steer the nation is part of a president’s job. The American presidency, after all, is “the bully pulpit.” President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term to underscore the rhetorical power a president can wield. TR understood well that a president’s words provide form and focus to his policies, rally or deflate the American people, reflect the national mood, reassure or worry America’s friends, and send signals to America’s foes. This sometimes-overlooked truth is especially relevant as we digest the words Clinton and Trump ladle out in the debates.

What’s telling is that the absence of the word “freedom” from the first Clinton-Trump debate is very much in line with the declining use of the word in presidential State of the Union (SOU) addresses, as illustrated by an interesting statistical compilation that dates back to 1934.

The compilation not surprisingly reveals that President Ronald Reagan’s use of “freedom” is the highest of all the surveyed SOU addresses, followed closely by President George W. Bush. In addition, President Franklin Roosevelt, President Dwight Eisenhower, President John Kennedy and President George H.W. Bush often employed “freedom” in their SOUs.

President Barack Obama’s use of the word is dramatically lower, especially when juxtaposed with Bush 43. Obama used “freedom” just once in his 2014 SOU, once in his 2015 SOU and twice in his 2016 SOU. Importantly, neither was related to the spread of freedom around the world. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, the world has seen an ebbing of free government in recent years.

Given that SOU speeches and debate sound-bites are poll-tested and focus-grouped, this trend says something about America in 2016—and how much the country has changed in recent decades. Indeed, if words mean anything, the SOU stats tell us a lot about a changing America.

For instance, there has been a steady decline in use of the word “united” since FDR, perhaps reflecting the American people growing less united as we move further away from the unifying task of World War II.

To be fair, keeping the United States united has always been a challenge. From the very beginning, the American people have valued the individual and exalted individualism. After all, this is where the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag once waved—and still waves in some places. As opposed to the rugged individualism of the frontier, nowadays there is a demand for rights, a sense of entitlement, a scramble to claim, a dissection of the nation into ever-smaller interest groups and voting blocs. And so, it seems there is more dividing us than uniting us.

Yet we are supposed to be one people. Our constitution, after all, begins with “We, the people”—not “I, the individual.” And our national motto is E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” If that phrase ceases to have meaning to Americans, this young century will not be another American century.

Related, use of the word “nation”—a word FDR often employed in his wartime SOU addresses—has seen a steady decline since the Nixon era. Obama registers some of the lowest uses of the word. Perhaps the disappearance of this word from SOU addresses is a function of fewer and fewer Americans viewing themselves as connected to their nation. This stands to reason, as post-nationalism and globalization erode the importance of the nation in daily life.

Globalization allows us—encourages us—to consider ourselves “citizens of the world.” But when China builds artificial islands in international waters, Russia annexes Crimea, ISIS tears through Paris, al Qaeda maims Manhattan, pandemics threaten the world, pirates prey on international shipping, mass-murderers try to exterminate their enemies, and tsunamis swallow cities, the victims don’t turn to multinational corporations or supranational NGOs for help. They turn to the most powerful nation-state. Critics of the United States may refuse to recognize America’s special role. But by turning to America for help when bad things happen, they are tacitly conceding that America is, well, special.

Conditioned to view patriotic sentiment as politically incorrect or old-fashioned, many Americans dismiss American exceptionalism or apologize for it. But no matter what Hollywood sells us, no matter what colleges teach us, not matter what the press tells us, this nation is special. Name another nation where an Afghan immigrant becomes its UN ambassador, where a refugee from Czechoslovakia becomes its secretary of state, where a Taiwanese or Cuban immigrant becomes a cabinet official, where a kid begins life as a Soviet refugee, survives the Nazis, flees the Red Army, and becomes Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“We’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important,” Reagan said, warning that “an eradication of the American memory” could lead to “an erosion of the American spirit.” A quarter-century later—as schools teach about the fads of the present rather than the enduring truths of the past, as parts of the nation balkanize into ethno-national shards, as political leaders struggle to grasp American exceptionalism—we know Reagan’s prognosis was accurate.

Bush 43 and FDR, both wartime presidents, used the term “victory” far more often than their peers. Obama has used it only once in his SOUs—and not in reference to the war on terrorism. Not coincidentally, Bush 43 and FDR spoke of the “enemy” and “enemies” far more than did other presidents. Indeed, it’s striking that in an age of terrorism, with U.S. troops waging pitched battles against terrorist groups around the world, the word “terrorism” was virtually absent from Obama’s SOU addresses in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012, and was used sparingly in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. (He used “terrorism/terrorist” just seven times in his 6,137-word 2016 SOU.)

Of course, Obama’s words unspoken merely reflect the mood of the American people. Fifty-six percent of Americans say counterterror operations in Afghanistan are not worth the costs; 74 percent say the U.S. should focus on problems here at home.

Since 1980, Bush 41 and Bush 43 talked about the “world” more than other presidents, though not as much as President Jimmy Carter, Truman, or FDR. Truman talked about the “world” more than any president surveyed.

The attacks of 9/11 and America’s consequent overseas engagements explain the younger Bush’s use of “world.” The fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the USSR, and Gulf War explain the elder Bush’s. What’s more puzzling is the relative absence of the word from Obama’s SOU addresses. As referenced above, this is probably a function of the world-weariness of the American people, which Obama tapped into as candidate and commander-in-chief.

Related, there has been a virtual disappearance of the word “alliance” from SOU addresses. Eisenhower, President Lyndon Johnson, and both Bushes used the word a little, President John Kennedy a lot. But most of the others used it seldom, if ever. Obama rarely spoke of allies in his SOUs, until 2015 and 2016.

Again, this is a reflection of the national mood. Fifty-two percent of Americans say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”—up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964.

Trump drew heavy criticism for suggesting he would come to the defense of NATO allies under attack—an ironclad requirement of the North Atlantic Treaty—only if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us.” Such a suggestion deserved every bit of criticism it received. Yet it pays to recall that this chill wind in America’s approach to allies began blowing during the Obama administration. It was the Obama administration that offloaded Guantanamo detainees onto the British colony of Bermuda, without consulting Britain. It was the Obama administration that put a time limit on America’s commitment to NATO in Libya. It was the Obama administration that left Poland and the Czech Republic out on a limb by unilaterally reversing NATO’s missile-defense plans. It was the Obama administration that invoiced Paris after the French military requested help in Mali. It was the Obama administration’s disengagement from the Middle East—the withdrawal from Iraq, the hands-off approach to Syria, the erased “red line”—that alarmed allies in Europe, Israel, Turkey, and Jordan. It was the Obama administration that employed phrases like “nation-building here at home” and “leading from behind” to encourage America’s turn inward.

Like a pendulum, U.S. foreign policy was bound to swing back from the hyperactivity of the immediate post-9/11 era. However, it seems Obama allowed the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction. Along the way, he failed to tend to America’s alliance system. It will be left to Clinton or Trump to rebuild the trust of old friends, while reminding the American people about the benefits of, and need for, alliances.

Alan Dowd is a contributor to Providence and a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.

Photo Credit: Public viewing of the first presidential debate at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive on September 26, 2016. By Roger Jones, via Flickr.

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