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The Florida Roundup
The Florida Roundup is a live, weekly call-in show with a distinct focus on the issues affecting Floridians. Each Friday at noon, listeners can engage in the conversation with journalists, newsmakers and other Floridians about change, policy and the future of our lives in the sunshine state.Join our host, WLRN’s Tom Hudson, broadcasting from Miami.

Discussing the power of language in the 2024 presidential election

Side-by-side photos of Joe Biden and Donald Trump speaking at podiums
Daylina Miller, WUSF / Associated Press

A doctoral student at the University of Florida said morals will guide how some Americans head to the polls this year, or whether they will vote at all.

The 2024 presidential election is months away, and both candidates — President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump — are on the campaign trail.

The Florida Roundup spoke with Brittany Shaughnessy, a doctoral student at the University of Florida, and Shawn Welcome, poet laureate for the city of Orlando, about the power of language during this election year.

“In terms of the public discourse, everything that we think about, I think can be framed in a political context,” Welcome said. “So, when it comes to poetry, poetry by and large is an expression of the human experience, which can't be necessarily absent from political context. So I don't know if it's never not political at times, because people have their own perceptions of how they're receiving those words and those images.”

Within politics, language is used by candidates to set an election’s issue agenda through media, according to Shaughnessy.

“… a lot of communication research since the ‘70s has showed us that the media are really what set the public agenda. And in the modern era, a lot of candidates are using social media. We saw Donald Trump in the lead-up to the 2016 election and, of course, in the lead-up to the 2020 election use social media to really guide the conversation here,” she said.

For users, Welcome described the impact of social media on language.

“I think social media allows people to have a greater sense of autonomy in terms of what they choose to say. They feel empowered just because of the easy access and ability to have their own audience,” Welcome said. “And so I think that just the empowering nature of social media informs maybe some stronger language, language that evokes all of the emotional buttons.”

Research Shaughnessy led that studies the language Biden and Trump used in 2020 found “candidates’ issue and moral agendas were correlated with each other and with the media's agenda.”

With a looming 2024 rematch, Shaughnessy said voters should listen to how both candidates use moral language.

“The Republican Party frames that a lot differently than the Democratic Party does. But at the end of the day, both parties are really relying on language that your morals are at stake. And that as a country, our way of living and our way of governing is at stake,” Shaughnessy said, calling this use of language an electoral strategy.

She also noted morals are guiding how some Americans will vote, or whether they will vote at all.

“I think morals have been used for a very long time in electoral politics. And I think that today, you see it get amplified, because people and politicians are using particular buzzwords that they know get their voters to the polls, and we see this on the right and the left,” Shaughnessy said.

These morals and values tie into a poem Welcome wrote about Orlando, called “Reasons Why.” It begins:

“When we say or you see, ‘My City Beautiful…’
Have you ever asked why?
Because visitors might say palm trees have voices of their own…
Speak for themselves amidst a cotton candy day sky… And a rainbow lit night sky. Is it also true for you who reside?”

Welcome relayed the message of the poem through a statewide perspective.

“… I think it's just a reminder to ask those deep questions, because that's what's going to inform how you move in the voting booth, or just out and about with your community members,” Welcome said.

As WUSF’s digital news producer, I strive to serve others by sharing stories on our online platforms.