Language and Politics Syllabus

This is a typical syllabus for the course. Some readings change session to session – for example I use different Platonic dialogues, have recently swapped out Nietzsche and assigned Richard Rorty in his place, and the case studies vary based on what’s in the news and what students are interested in. 

The syllabus below has been edited to take out the GW-specific bits.


Language and Politics

Instructor: Peter Loge

“The world is still in want of clear-headed citizens, tempered by historical perspective, disciplined by rational thinking and moral compass, who speak well and write plainly.”

  • Lee Pelton, President of Emerson College

It is often said that “political language is political reality,” an assertion with which few in Washington would disagree.  This course will investigate the connection between language and the political world around us.  We will explore both the theory and practice of language in politics and discuss the implications of these explorations on the creation and consumption of politics.

This course is roughly divided into three conceptual chunks: foundational questions about where meaning ‘comes from’ and whether or not words themselves ultimately ‘mean’ anything; case studies of how words work in politics and policy debates; and a larger discussion of what happens when language starts referring to other language as proof rather than referring to ideas or objects in the outside world. Throughout the course we will be discussing the ethics of political language.

While the course will focus on words, we will also discuss the role that images, sounds, and other things play in the creation of meaning. The last chunk of the course will especially focus on the topic of systems of signs or systems of meaning.

You will be expected to do the readings, think about their connections to events in politics, and participate in class discussions.  Quality of insight is better than quantity of words, and challenging questions and questioning of assumptions is always more interesting than just tagging along. 

The success or failure of this class rests largely on you and your colleagues.  If you listen closely to your peers, make unexpected connections, and take intellectual risks, the fall will be a very interesting conversation.


You will be graded on three short essays, a major paper, a mid-term exam, a final exam, and class participation.  The final papers and essays should be emailed and handed in on paper.


You will be required to write three short essays.  They should be no longer than two pages, double spaced.  I will stop reading at the bottom of the second page, and grade you only on what I’ve read.  Extreme efforts to extend margins, squeeze in fonts, etc., will be punished.  No late papers will be accepted.

Each essay is worth 10% of your final grade (combined they are worth 30% of your final grade).

Essay #1 is due at the start of the second class session (Sept. 9) and should discuss a piece of political language and its implications – for example what the words “anchor baby” imply, why Republicans would want to call the Affordable Care Act “Obamacare,” or if there’s a difference between “climate change” and “global warming.”

Essay #2 is due at the start of the October 7 class and should discuss the connection between language and politics – what it is, what it should be, and the implications of the connection (or disconnection).

Essay #3 is due at the start of class on November 18 and should examine the relationship between a metaphor and public policy.

Major Paper

For your final paper you will be required to do a thorough analysis of a piece of political language or a political image or develop and defend a position on the role of language (broadly defined) and politics.

One option is to find an image, word, etc., and explain something about it – what it means, how it came to mean that, the historical development, its implications, etc.  Your paper should include reviews of others who have written on your topic and should place your analysis in the context of that research.  For example if you write about the Confederate Flag, you should discuss others who have written about the symbolic power of flags in general, as well as those who have written about the confederate flag.  An important element of the paper is the “so what?”  You will be expected to not just describe something, but connect that description to larger events or issues.  In the above example you could provide ideas on how to resolve the controversy around the Flag.

Another option is to develop your own theory of language (verbal and/or visual) and politics.  If you choose this route you should be sure to include those who have already written on your subject, anticipate and respond to criticisms, and demonstrate why your approach is superior.  For example you could critique Lakoff and suggest your own explanation of metaphor in politics.

The final paper should be between 15 and 25 pages long.  I expect these papers to be top quality, that you will footnote your claims, cite your works (any form of citation is acceptable as long as it is complete and consistent), and that there will be no grammatical or spelling errors.

The final paper is due at the start of the last day of class, December 9th.  It is worth 25% of your final grade.  No late papers will be accepted.

I encourage you to begin thinking about your final papers early in the semester and to consult with me along the way.  I am willing to read drafts, look at outlines, talk about ideas, and so forth.


Anything that happens in class is fair game for exams.

The mid-term exam is on October 21 and will have a short answer and essay component. 

The final exam will be a take-home exam and consist of one or two essays.  It will be due at the end of the scheduled final exam period for this class.

The mid-term counts for 25% of your final grade, the final exam 15% (for a total of 40%).


Class participation is worth 10% of your final grade.  You are expected to constructively add to the conversation, which means you should do, think about, and be prepared to talk about the readings.  You are also expected to pay attention to the political world around you and think about it in terms of the course.  You should have ideas and opinions and be able to defend them. 

You will not be rewarded for just talking a lot.


Readings are listed in the course schedule below.  In addition I may email articles or essays during the week that strike me as interesting. 


You have several ethical responsibilities in this course.  This is a small group, in a small space, for several hours at a time.  For this adventure to work for all of us, each of us needs to do the readings and think about them.  We must respect each other’s positions on the readings, and honor intellectual experiments (the “what if….” positions); that means people should be willing and able to change their minds, to defend their positions, and challenge the positions of others.  Critically, one should never confuse an argument with the person making the argument – positions are not people. This means you should not attack people, only their claims and you should do so based on reasoning.  Similarly, you should defend your positions as if they were ideas to be kicked around, not children to be protected.

Cheating and plagiarizing are not acceptable.  They will be punished to the greatest extent permitted by The George Washington University policy.  All exams, papers, and other work products are to be completed in conformance with The George Washington University Code of Academic Integrity.


I work from the premise that you are all adults.  I don’t take attendance, but you are responsible for everything that happens in class.  If you miss a session, you should find a colleague from whom to get notes, readings, etc. 

There may be guest speakers and the schedule of readings and discussions may change.

You can call or email any time, but calling before 7am and after 10pm will likely do you more harm than good.


Sept. 2             Introduction.

Lecture: The Course in an Hour

Sept. 9             FIRST ESSAY DUE

Write the first essay discussing a piece of political language and its implications – for example, examine the difference between “conservationist” and “environmentalist,” “global warming” and “climate change”, etc.


On Writing Well Chapter 1, 2, 3, 6, and 14

Cratylus by Plato, available at and elsewhere.

Sept. 16           Read

Selections from Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure

Selections from C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards The Meaning of Meaning

“Language, thought and reality: a comparison of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics with C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richard’s The Meaning of Meaning by David West, Changing English Vol 12 No 2, October 2005 pp 327-336


The connection between words and things.

Sept.    23        Read

“Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell available at and elsewhere

“The All Spin Zone” by Stanley Fish


Orwell, Fish and the possibility of “good” political language.

Sept. 30           Read

“On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” by Friedrich Nietzsche, available at and elsewhere


Your essays and the possibility of reality inside and outside of politics.

Oct. 7              SECOND ESSAY DUE

Write your second essay explaining what the connection between language and politics is, what it should be, and the implications of the (dis)connections.


“Political Language and Political Reality” by Murray Edelman, PS vol 18   no 1 Winter 1985


The relationship between political language and political reality.

Oct. 14            Read 

Lakoff, “Metaphor, Morality, and Politics or Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals in the Dust.” Social Research, Summer 1995 pp 177 – 213

“Block That Metaphor!” by Steven Pinker, The New Republic, Oct. 9, 2006 pp 24 – 29.

 “The Framing Wars” by Matt Bai, The New York Times Magazine, July 17, 2005



Oct. 21                        MID TERM              

Oct. 28            Read

“Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning” by Paul H. Thibodeau, Lera Boroditsky, (PLoS ONE 6(2))


Metaphor and crime

Nov. 4                         Read

“The Meaning and Measure of Policy Metaphors” by Mark Schlesinger and Richard R. Lau, (The American Political Science Review vol 94 no 3 Sept. 2000)

“Policy Frames, Metaphorical Reasoning, and Support for Public Policies” by Richard R. Lau and Mark Schlesinger, (Political Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2005).

Frank Luntz health care messaging memo


Health care policy metaphor

Nov. 11           Read:

“What Should This Fight Be Called? Metaphors of Counterterrorism and their Implications” by Arie W. Kruglanski, Martha Crenshaw, Jerrold M. Post, and Jeff Victoroff (Psychological Science in the Public Interest Vol. 8 No. 3, 2008)


Metaphor and terrorism

Nov. 18           THIRD ESSAY DUE

Write about the relationship between metaphor and a public policy


Michel Foucault, “The Order of Discourse” in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader ed. By Robert Young, 1981, Routledge Press and elsewhere.


Language and society

Nov. 25           NO CLASS –THANKSGIVING

Dec. 2              Read

Selection from Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation


Post modernism

Dec. 9              FINAL PAPER DUE


Final Exam due at the end of the scheduled final exam period for the class