As many of you know, I occasionally like to raise a political pet peeve of mine for your consideration. I consume so much political coverage on a daily basis that over time I inevitably notice all sorts of interesting behavioral patterns (as a social scientist should) among elected officials, policymakers, and political elites. Sometimes these behavioral quirks afflict the Washington political class as a whole, and other times they are the provenance of a particular party or ideological group. In keeping with the spirit of this website, I try to spread my irritation around in bipartisan fashion, lest the folks on one side or the other feel like they are being unfairly put upon. But today it is the Democrats toward whom I turn my attention.
I have noticed in recent years that Democratic elected officials, policymakers, and political elites frequently preface their explanations of particular policies or political phenomena with the imperative command, understand, as in, “Understand, we inherited the worst depression in a generation from the previous administration.” I have found this progressive verbal tic to be mildly irritating for quite some time, but it was elevated to a full-blown pet peeve for me over the weekend, when I watched back-to-back Sunday morning interviews with White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
While Axelrod slipped in a few soft understands during his interview with ABC’s Jake Tapper, Gibbs elevated its usage to the level of stylistic crutch on Meet the Press with roughly a half-dozen repetitions of the word (transcripts here and here). I’ve heard President Obama, a variety of Democratic Members of Congress, and some Democratic political analysts also use the word in the same way on a number of occasions. It appears to cut across geographical lines and job descriptions, but I have yet to hear a Republican on television or radio preface an explanation with the command, understand.
I’ve been trying to figure out the origins of this particular verbal tic, and I think it may have something to do with the progressive preference for nuanced explanations in response to pointed political questions. While there is nothing wrong with wanting nuance, it’s often difficult to tease out effectively in a rhetorically stark partisan environment. As a result, I find myself predisposed to ignore when commanded to understand what otherwise might be a reasonable explanation. Regardless of the speaker's intentions, it just comes across as sounding a little too patronizing and defensive for my taste.
Note: I’ll be away tomorrow and back posting on Thursday. -Dean

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