Politics claims another casualty in its war against clear language.

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Oct. 19 2010 5:43 PM

Man Down

Politics claims another casualty in its war against clear language.

Sarah Palin. Click image to expand.
Sarah Palin

Man, the use of "Man up" has gone up. Sharron Angle, a Republican, said Harry Reid should "man up" and accept the fact that there's a Social Security crisis. Robin Carnahan, a Democrat, used the phrase against Roy Blunt during a debate about health care. Former House Majority Leader turned activist Dick Armey has used it, as has Florida Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek. At a Tea Party Express rally Monday, Sarah Palin said, "Hey, politicians who are in office today, you, some of you, need to man up and spend some political capital to support the Tea Party."

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Anyone who has listened to any debates this year knows that political discussion has become ever more like the airport sandwich: shrink-wrapped, soggy, and without flavor. (The exception is the New York governor's race, which resembles the airport bar) The journey of "man up" from clever rejoinder to cliché is an illustration of why our political communication is so shabby.

During the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial campaign, Democrat John Corzine made not-so-subtle fun of his opponent Chris Christie's weight. In an ad, Corzine accused Christie of "[throwing] his weight around" and showed the Republican getting out of an SUV in slow motion to accentuate his size. Asked about the ad, Christie, who went on to become the governor of New Jersey, said that Corzine should just "man up and say I'm fat."

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The remark made news because it was amusing. It was repeated because it was rare: a politician cutting to the truth. It was also authentic. Christie was secure, unlike most politicians who are afraid to make a stir. To use another macho verb that was once in vogue, Christie "owned" his fatness—just as Cyrano de Bergerac owned his nose—and turned it from a taunt into a weapon.

This is what we are starved for. Imagine if someone spoke plainly about something that mattered! Original, unvarnished speech is such a danger, however, that politicians of both parties have joined together to make the expression "man up" into a cliché, rendering it as harmless as the promise to "put America first." When a politician uses the expression now, it is rehearsed as dinner theater. It is dreary to watch, boring to listen to, and tells us nothing about the politician or the issue he or she is talking about.

The final step in the life of a modern political cliché is to become totally detached from its original meaning. Sarah Palin assists in this cause. The former governor of Alaska has minted a powerful political expression of this cycle: "How is that hope-y change-y thing working out for you?" This enthralls her supporters and enrages her opponents, while getting at the undeniable, underlying truth that President Obama did not meet a lot of people's expectations. But when she uses the phrase "man up," she courts trouble. Her final act as an elected official was to quit her office before her term was over. Does she really have standing to tell people to suck it up when the going gets tough? Palin is fond of basketball metaphors. In basketball, "man up" can mean continuing to play even though people are being unfair to you.

Fortunately for Palin and others who will continue to abuse this cliché, logic is not a requirement for political speech. "Man up," the phrase of the political fall, has now become one more sign of it.

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