Germany’s Election Is Making George Orwell Turn in His Grave
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Let me ask you an honest question. How do you feel about Mindestbeitragsbemessungsgrundlage? Your answer could determine how you’d vote in Germany’s federal election on Sept. 26, because the center-left Greens make much of it in their party platform — although it’s not entirely clear what it is, or what the Greens think about it.
The manifestos of the other five parties aren’t any better. The center-right bloc, consisting of the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, pontificates ominously about something called an Allgemeinverbindlichkeitserklaerung. The current front-runners, the Social Democrats, have a lot to say about Schwerpunktstaatsanwaltschaften. And so it goes.
Do not make the mistake of thinking that your puzzlement has anything to do with your inability to understand German. Most Germans have no clue what these fabricated terms mean either.
Yes, it’s true that “The Awful German Language,” as Mark Twain titled his classic rumination on the subject, contains rather a lot of things that are “not words [but] alphabetical processions.” But the underlying malaise here is a different one — and one that’s just as rife in the U.S., the U.K, France or any other modern democracy.
To grasp that deeper phenomenon you could do worse than re-read George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” while mentally replacing “English” with German, French, Spanish or whatever else you happen to speak.
As Orwell already understood in 1949, political expression in any tongue tends naturally toward being unclear, inelegant, stale and just plain ugly. At worst, as with this year’s batch of German political platforms, such texts become little more than gibberish, deliberately written more to obscure than to elucidate.
That’s the upshot of a study by the University of Hohenheim in southwestern Germany. It found that by almost any measure the parties’ official manifestos— which allegedly serve to inform the electorate — are unreadable.
The average word count of these programs has been trending upwards since 1949 and now stands at 43,541 (see chart). That’s the rough equivalent of ten U.S. Constitutions, or six when including the 27 amendments as well.
Those words, moreover, include lots of those aforementioned neologisms, portmanteaus and compounds, often totaling some 50 letters each. These monsters are then strung into run-on sentences that the study’s authors aptly call tapeworms. Those wind across entire pages and contain structures — parenthetical insertions boxed into partial qualifications and triple negations — that make it hard to simply find the subject and predicate. The study cites one sentence of 79 words.
The researchers also developed an index to infer comprehensibility. On this scale, 0 is impossible to understand and 20 is easy. An average PhD dissertation in political science ranks 4.3, whereas broadcast news is usually around 16.4. The party manifestos rank an average of 7.2, quite close to the level of a PhD dissertation. The most professorial, at 5.6, are the Greens.
My hunch is that if researchers in other democracies did similar studies — and I hope they do — they’d find comparable crimes against clear expression and thinking, if not the Twainian word processions that German allows. The question is the same as it was in Orwell’s day. Why?
Orwell concluded that, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Often it is, but many of the German politicos now running for a seat in parliament or government do genuinely believe in something.
So I believe the root cause is cowardice. In an age of social media, political correctness, political tribalism and polarization, many of us fear that one mispronunciation of our respective shibboleth will get us kicked out of our group, end our careers, cost us the crucial votes or leave us open to attack from the other side.
This fear prompts us, and especially politicians, to deny that each and every opinion we hold implies trade-offs, often painful ones. Any policy about climate change, for instance, will also have financial, tax, economic and even geopolitical implications, perhaps not ones we’d like to countenance.
Good communication would mean expressing these trade-offs and contradictions head-on, with simple and ideally short words and sentences. Then again, “good” communication may not be the goal of political expression.
More likely, as Orwell intuited, the objective is really preemptive self-defense. If politicians understand words and sentences as moats and battlements with crenels, then the more and the bigger the better. As a former U.S. central banker once famously put it: “I’ve learned to mumble with great incoherence. If I seem unduly clear to you, you must have misunderstood what I said.”
Call me old-fashioned, but this is poison for democratic culture. Without clear language, voters cannot discern their alternatives and instead become disillusioned and apathetic or, worse, prey for demagogues.
For this much is certain: There will always be pied pipers and cynics who discard their scruples and oversimplify reality to appeal to our resentments. And they will choose words that are short and simple. If only populist politicians heed Orwell’s six rules of writing and speak clearly, God help us.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.