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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

national conversation

(1980’s | journalese? bureaucratese? | “lively debate,” “broad-based or general discussion,” “public discourse”)

Another expression we owe to the Reagan years, though not to Reagan himself. The first example in LexisNexis shows up at the beginning of 1984 from the pen of George Will (Google Books kicks up a few scattered uses before that), but Secretary of Education William J. Bennett seems to have debuted this phrase definitively; he took office in 1985 and used it frequently, and it started to show up more after that. The phrase was a commonplace by the end of Bill Clinton’s first year in office, once again associated with a particular official, NEH chair Sheldon Hackney. Originally it referred to discussion of a single event or issue — in Bennett’s case it was education policy — politicians and their spokespersons would call for a national conversation about their field of interest or responsibility. “Have a national conversation” replaces “focus our attention on” or “get people thinking about.” Another, more general, meaning soon crept in, and we may use the term, generally preceded by the definite article, to refer to what everyone is talking about, even if not directly related to traditional political questions. The latter meaning is harder to pin down, more mythical, than the original.

It won’t do to give the politicians too much credit. The rise of talk radio, cell phones, and the internet in the early 1990’s seemed to embody the national conversation, and the phrase slipped naturally into a kind of shorthand for these brave new means of mass communication. Talk radio, in particular, was quickly embraced as opening a window on our collective consciousness or oversoul, or something. Personally, I doubt that any of these innovations has really contributed much to improvements in civil discourse, other than making it easier for us to trade trivialities or blow off steam (the internet has made itself useful as a storehouse of information, which is not insignificant). But I admit the possibilities seemed powerful at the time.

“National dialogue” had already come into use before 1980, but it sounds too two-sided to take multiple perspectives into account. (“Dialogue” seems to be the preferred term when some kind of reconciliation is needed, reinforcing the notion that only two parties can be involved.) I suspect Bennett was looking for a word that sounded not only more diverse than “dialogue” but also less confrontational than “debate,” which for centuries served its turn as the word for the process of figuring out what the government should do next, or what its guiding principle in a particular area should be. “Debate” conjures up sweaty candidates at podiums, observing strict rules about how much they can talk and maybe even which matters they may address. Conversations are different. They’re not staged, or bound by formal procedures; they proceed naturally as people try to deal with the problem at hand. It’s not just the prerogative of politicians and their advisors, but something we can all do. This jibes nicely with one of our cherished stories about self-governance: just by leaning over the back fence, we can participate in our most urgent policy discussions and guide our leaders to the best, most democratic solution. The facade does become harder to maintain as the population grows, and “national conversation” may promise more widespread involvement than it can deliver.

If a welcoming, inclusive effect was what Bennett was after in 1985, we can judge that he was not particularly successful. Maybe that’s because the loss of rules and standards that accompanied the shift from debate to conversation forestalled any such result. The premise underlying political debate was a commitment to giving all sides a fair hearing, in the hopes that each position would be explained clearly and buttressed by the best available arguments. A good debate represents the various viewpoints well enough that observers may reach sensible, reliable conclusions. Conversation makes no such promise. It’s easy for a conversation to degenerate into a shouting match or vituperation, or simply two people talking past each other; the rules of debate that limit or prevent such failures don’t apply. It’s true that debates are often won by the best debater, rather than by the defender of the most cogent position, but conversations are even worse. The old standards required not only that each side be heard respectfully, but that participants would acknowledge opposing sides of the argument. Now even that theoretical baseline has been lost. Conversation carries no obligation to listen to anyone else or any means to compel it. So you get less efficiency and more clash.

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