LSA on Politics: In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, our four-part series takes a look at the different ways LSA scholars and alumni are engaged in the political landscape and informing the debates of our time.

Americans like to scrutinize our politicians. We might call them Democrats or Republicans, flip-floppers or mavericks, baby kissers or bloviators, but they are essential to the democratic process. Because they are trying to sell us something—themselves—we also tend to view them with a fair amount of skepticism, especially when it comes to their message.

The concept of having a message first gained traction among political insiders in the 1990s, and its prevalence among pundits and handlers soon spread to the broader public, including academia. Professor of Anthropology Michael Lempert, a linguistic anthropologist, has given the concept some careful thought. “Message sounds like it ought to mean what politicians are talking about: their positions and stances on issues, their campaign platform,” Lempert says. “But in political insider use, it’s always meant more than that. Message means character, biography, issue, and image, and the way these things fuse together—that’s what linguistic anthropologists like to meditate on.”

Lempert is captivated by this particular fusion, and by the aperture created by language itself that allows him to peer into society and culture. “Language mediates,” he says. “It comes between nearly every aspect of our lives and so it is a nexus of sorts. When you start to pull at it, the connecting threads run to all sorts of things.”

Body Language

Candidates try to entice voters with their stories, with testaments to their temperament and character, and with their stances on particular issues. Each of these influences our voting decisions, as do the ways candidates communicate them.

Embodied communication is unavoidable, Lempert says. Any time you speak or argue, people make inferences about what kind of a person you are. We treat candidates the same way, absorbing their words along with their mannerisms and gestures. One of the most common gestures politicians use to convey their message is the precision grip. 

The precision grip is a kind of grasping motion that can be made using a variety of hand shapes. Sometimes the thumb touches the tip of the index finger. Sometimes the fingers are all bunched together. The precision grip is usually delivered with a downward-thrusting forearm. 

The precision grip, says Lempert, is a gesture that can influence you to think the person is being sharp and has an effective point.

“When Obama started debating in 2007,” Lempert recalls, “he was initially criticized for sounding vague and wooly, especially when compared with then frontrunner Hillary Clinton.  In addition to adjusting his answers in debate, he started cranking up the number of precision-grip gestures, and suddenly people were making inferences: ‘It seems like this guy really does have something sharp to say.’ There are contexts, such as debates, in which a copious use of a precision grip gesture can do some additional work.”

What kind of work? “At a basic level, the precision grip gesture marks information status,” Lempert explains. “It’s used for a type of emphasis, but in oratory and debate it is also used to display that you have a sharp, effective point to make.”

In the case of Obama’s history, his precision-grip gestures got caught up in his efforts to adjust his message.

The Real Deal

A candidate can be absolutely authentic, but even genuine authenticity is only effective if people believe it. 

Recent campaigns have worked to create candidates who seem like unbranded outsiders. Bill Clinton came from a little town called Hope. The self-declared maverick John McCain rode around the country on the Straight Talk Express. Or think of Sarah Palin, the hockey mom-cum pitbull with lipstick. Lempert says these campaigns have crafted a message that is meant to convey that their candidates have no message. “’Nothing here is crafted to pander to a particular constituency. This is really us. This is really conviction.”

Now campaigns have taken this outsider message one step farther. They have crafted a kind of “uncandidate,” which Lempert likens to the 7UP advertising campaign from the late 1960s. To distinguish 7UP from all of the colas vying for consumers’ attention, 7UP offered itself as the “uncola.”

Clinton's gestures seem familiar to political onlookers, says Lempert, while Trump uses the the space around him to help communicate his anti-presidential stance.

Lempert sees Donald Trump’s campaign working to occupy this space. In the debates, “Trump underscores his anti-presidential stance by interrupting the debate moderator, by sounding different and looking different,” Lempert says. But Lempert also sees clear continuity between Trump’s campaign and its predecessors, including in the way Trump uses traditional political gestures.

Trump’s gestures—slicing the air, extending an index finger, using precision grips—are absolutely mainstream, says Lempert. It’s how he makes them that is different.

Lempert says, “Trump reaches out from the center of his body into the periphery. He has a tendency to use two-handed gestures. Think about the way in which that increases his noticeability or the salience of his gestures. And when he does use things like precision grips, his palm is oriented outward, toward the audience. You could almost say Trump gestures loudly.”

The irony of a campaign running uncandidate messages in a cultural moment when handlers, pollsters, and the political marketing industry are highly visible to the electorate is not lost on Lempert. “We’re very aware of all of the mediation that’s involved—all the things that come between a politician and the public. This anti-message message pretends to find ways to make it seem that mediation doesn’t exist.” 

LSA on Politics: Read Other Stories in the Series


Top illustration by Erin Nelson. Inline images courtesy of Shutterstock