Metaphors of the 2016 Presidential Election

I discovered today that if you Google a candidate’s name + “issue stances,” Google provides a list of key political issues and quotes from that candidate on the issue. As someone who tries to remain an educated voter but doesn’t particularly enjoy politics, I was excited to find what essentially seems to be the Sparknotes for voting.

Political discourse is known for being full of metaphors, and the quotes Google provided were no exception. Here are some of the more colorful ones I noticed and the ways they may shape the way we think about the issues*:

Immigration

Donald Trump repeatedly uses the metaphor of immigrants as water: “We cannot allow illegal immigrants to pour into our country,” and “These are people that shouldn’t be in our country. They flow in like water.” When water is flowing, and especially when it’s pouring, we infer that it’s coming fast and consistently. Further, when too much water comes too fast (like when it’s pouring rain), we end up with flooding, which can destroy infrastructure and the homes and lives that people have worked hard to build for themselves. These inferences seem to be consistent with Trump’s stance on immigration: if we don’t cut off the metaphorical faucet, we could all end up drowning, watching all that we’ve worked for float away.

Clinton and Sanders use a journey metaphor for people who are in America illegally, often referring to a “path to citizenship” (a phrase they both use) and providing a “roadmap to citizenship to the 11 million aspiring Americans living in this country” (Sanders). Paths are intentional and defined, and when we stay on them, we eventually end up at a destination. Sometimes staying on a path does take some physical effort, but each step results in progress. Just as immigrants travel to arrive in America, once they’re here they will metaphorically travel towards citizenship. The inference accompanying this metaphor is that the Democratic candidates will further define and structure the path (perhaps by clarifying the roadmap) to allow immigrants to become legal citizens.

Education

The Democratic candidates have made some revolutionary statements about education, especially college education, that point to their goals to drastically reduce or eliminate students’ college debt. Hillary Clinton has referred to creating an “education SWAT team” of qualified people who would define education standards for the country. A SWAT team comes in to restore order during times of chaos and danger, so the SWAT team metaphor implies that our education system is in dire need of dramatic, immediate help. Bernie Sanders shares a similar viewpoint by sarcastically referring to the “crime of trying to get an education.” Just as criminals often have to pay burdensome fines for their actions, many college graduates find themselves with unrealistic amounts of debt after college. By likening college debt to criminal fines, Sanders implies that it is ridiculous that graduates and criminals both have similar punishments. If you buy into this metaphor, his plan to make public colleges free seems like a no-brainer. Donald Trump, on the other hand, makes few substantive comments on education, so his metaphors are not clear.

National Security

The metaphors for elements of national security seem to be a little more varied. On the side of avoiding too much security, Sanders says that “We can (protect the country from terrorism) without living in an Orwellian world.” You could argue that the reference to an Orwellian world is technically an allusion, but it’s also a metaphorical allusion. In George Orwell’s 1984, the government knows everything about everyone, and the book is a creepy warning for what can happen if the government oversteps its boundaries. This reference encourages people to think of the vague notion of the government increasing its intelligence efforts in more concrete terms but conjuring up the disturbing images from 1984.

There are also many metaphors that suggest that national security should be increased. Clinton’s language suggests that terrorism threats are concrete, material things, referring to “the threats we face together” and “The threat we face from terrorism is real, it is urgent, and it knows no boundaries.” People have a hard time thinking about things they can’t see or touch (or otherwise experience directly), which is when metaphor often comes in. Terrorism threats are a great example of a complex and intangible problem, but by suggesting that they are real things that we can face and that they can spread without boundaries, Clinton encourages people to think about them more concretely, which can in turn encourage us to take national security more seriously.

Trump often talks very literally about a wall around our borders. This is not a metaphor, but would be an especially vivid one if he wasn’t being serious. He does talk about our current border status metaphorically, however, claiming that “our borders are like Swiss cheese.” If only he were being literal about that border claim, we’d have a lot of happy people!

* Here are the Google searches that turned up the quotes that I use throughout this post: Trump, Clinton, Sanders.

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