Bad language makes good politics


*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Politics abounds with bad language: lying and bullshitting, grandstanding and virtue signaling, code words and dogwhistles, and more. But why is there so much bad language in politics? And what, if anything, can we do about it? In this paper I show how these two questions are connected. Politics is full of bad language because existing social and political institutions are structured in such a way that the production of bad language becomes rational. In principle, by modifying these institutions we can reduce the prevalence of bad language. However, as I show, such practical efforts are fraught with difficulties. After first outlining an account of bad language (Section 2), I examine the rationality of three different types of bad language: inaccurate language, insincere language, and unclear language (Section 3). Next, I discuss the possibility of implementing institutional reforms to improve the quality of political discourse (Section 4). However, I then outline and discuss two serious complications for institutional reforms – namely, they create risk of abuse, and they could preclude instances of seemingly bad language that, in fact, are socially beneficial (Section 5). I conclude with some thoughts about how to pursue institutional reform in an appropriately circumspect manner (Section 6).
Original languageEnglish
Early online date26 Apr 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 26 Apr 2023

Bibliographical note

Thanks to Patrick Brooks, Elisabeth Camp, Alex Davies, Andy Egan, Alex Guerrero, Eleonore Neufeld, Phillip Pettit, J. Joseph Porter, audiences at Hong Kong University and Rutgers University, New Brunswick, and an anonymous referee for their insightful feedback on different versions of this paper.
Publisher Copyright: © 2023 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • misinformation
  • virtue signaling
  • dogwhistles
  • fact-checking
  • speech regulation
  • epistocracy


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