Editor’s Note: The following is a linguistic analysis of Colorado Republican Senator Cory Gardner’s speech based on a selection of five interviews and speeches: A 2014 interview on his position on fetal personhood; a 2017 interview with reporter Joe St. George on town halls; his speech at the 2019 Western Conservative Summit; a 2019 interview where he’s asked by several reporters about the impeachment proceedings against President Trump; and an April interview with a conservative talk radio host regarding COVID-19.
The Personhood Issue
In the interview with Denver Fox 31’s Eli Stokols, September 2014, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner states four times that there is no federal personhood bill. The first time Gardner makes this claim is when Stokols points to a conflict in Gardner’s position on the personhood, issue, asking “If you don’t support the personhood initiative at the state level anymore, why keep your name on that Life Begins at Conception Act at the federal level?” to which Gardner responds, “There is no such thing as a federal personhood bill.” When Stokols attempts to state that individual representatives who wrote the federal bill and Personhood USA describe the bill as a personhood bill, Gardner cuts Stokols off, stating “When I announced for Senate, that’s when this outcry started from the Senate campaign of Senator Udall’s. That’s what they’re trying to do. This is all politics.” Although Gardner, in response to Stokols’ stating that some have argued that the Life Begins at Conception Act prompts the same concerns about birth control that Gardner has stated as the grounds for not supporting the state-level personhood bill, Gardner states that he does not support legislation that would ban birth control, he then commits the rest of the interview to accusing then-opponent for Senate seat Mark Udall of bringing up Gardner’s position on the personhood issue due to politics and further accusing Udall of doing so because of Udall’s inability to “defend his record of failure,” claiming that Udall is “running away from his record and trying to distract the voters with things he would like people to believe that simply aren’t true.” When Stokols attempts, again, to point out that it is not just Udall but the federal bill’s sponsors that believe the Life Begins at Conception Act is a personhood bill, Gardner begins to talk over Stokols as he begins to say the word “sponsors,” appearing as though he is mishearing Stokols’ statement as one about what Udall believes, stating, “Well, of course, he tries to see it in the way that he wants to. This is a political campaign and he’s trying to do whatever he can to change the subject, to run away.” Gardner then starts to shift the conversation with the discourse marker “Look.”
In the five-minute and 20-second video clip from the 22-minute interview with Stokols, Gardner uses the discourse marker “Look” once at the beginning of the statement “Look, I’m not going to defend Senator Udall’s failed record. I’m not going to sit here and tell you the Senator’s done everything he can for the people of Colorado. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Mark Udall is simply trying to say what is simply not the case.” Here Gardner is establishing a defensive stance against Stokols, positioning himself as being coerced by Stokols to defend his political opponent, while also taking an offensive stance against Udall, continuing to claim that Udall has a failed record in the Senate and has failed Colorado constituents, and to also continue to claim that Udall is falsely accusing him of supporting a federal personhood bill because Gardner is a threat to Udall’s retaining the Senate seat. He emphasizes this final point by further stating that Mark Udall is looking at the personhood issue and the federal bill that Gardner supports through “the lens of politics,” also implying that Stokols is doing this as well. When Stokols attempts to clarify that he looking at Gardner’s position on the federal bill in light of what he is reading about the bill on FactCheck.org, Gardner attempts to shift the conversation again to criticism of Udall, pointing to a FactCheck.org’s statement about Udall’s previous statements in support of the healthcare bill. Cory Gardner’s final statement on the personhood issue that Stokol is attempting to discuss with him is “It’s simply politics. There is no federal personhood bill.”
“Look” as a Discourse Marker in Gardner’s Interview Statements
In the interview with Stokols about the personhood issue, Gardner uses “Look” to draw attention to his central claims in the conversation. As in this interview, Gardner often uses “Look” defensively to draw attention to claims he is using to defend his stance on certain issues he is questioned on by reporters. In the brief two-minute interview with Fox 31 Denver’s Joe St. George in which St. George asks whether Gardner will plan to hold any town halls in the wake of recent heated town halls that had proved challenging for Republican representatives, Gardner first responds “Well, look, we’ve had a number of opportunities to engage with a number of Coloradans around the state. And we’ll continue to do that … I appreciate the people who are expressing their points of view, whether they support what the President has done or whether they oppose what the President has done, it is very good for all of us to hear what’s going on.” When St. George asks again if Gardner will commit to a town hall in the near future, Gardner states that he has “held over a hundred town halls” during his time in Congress, that his office has met with protestors and would continue to do this, and that he would continue to hold tele-town halls. St. George follows up by asking if tele-town halls are a way to avoid the heated confrontation that has been occurring at in-person town halls. Gardner responds by describing the benefits of the tele-town halls, noting that his office takes all questions including negative questions. When pressed by St. George for the third time with the question “So as of right now, no plans to hold a town hall?” Gardner responds “Look, we’ve had a number of tele-town hall opportunities. We’ve had a number of opportunities to go to open forums–“ Gardner is cut off by St. George asking a fourth time about whether Gardner will hold a town hall, and Gardner concludes the interview by stating “We’re going to continue working on meetings where we can meet people across the state. That’s what we’re doing today. That’s what we’re doing tomorrow. We’ll continue doing it throughout the week.”
In a more challenging exchange with multiple reporters in October 2019, before a Chamber of Commerce event in Denver, Gardner uses “Look” as a discourse marker in defensive statements a total of 14 times in an eight-minute interview. Here, Gardner was asked to give a yes or no answer to the question “Do you think it’s appropriate for the President of the United States to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival?” Gardner’s initial response is “Well look, this is what we’re going to get into. The Senate Intelligence Committee is having an investigation, a bipartisan investigation. Unfortunately, though, what we’ve seen is a very political process take over. If you look at what Al Green in Texas, a member of Congress has said, ‘We need to impeach President Trump now because we might not be able to beat him in November.’ That’s about politics. That’s not what this serious investigation should be about.” As reporters continue to press Gardner for a yes/no answer to the question and attempt to address the issue of the grounds on which an impeachment investigation would develop, Gardner consistently claims that both reporters and Democrats are addressing the allegations against Trump from the frame of “politics and elections” rather than through the “serious process” of a Senate investigation.
In an interview context that Gardner is much more comfortable in, that of the conservative radio talk show, Gardner also uses “Look” defensively when explaining his stances on certain issues, as if he is explaining them to an imagined audience who disagrees with these stances but with the purpose of reinforcing the validity of these stances for the conservative listeners who likely agree with them. In an April 2020 interview on Wake Up! with Randy Corporon, Gardner was asked about his recent “courageous” statement that businesses should reopen. Corporon helps create the imagined, oppositional audience by stating “It seems like if you mentioned that in some circles that you’re inhumane or some kind of a monster.” Gardner begins his response with “Well, look, that’s a three-pronged strategy that I think is important.” Later in the interview, Corporon asks Gardner to speak about a recent opinion piece by Gardner titled “Coronavirus spread because of Chinese Communist Party’s ineptitude and deceptions.” Gardner begins by stating “Well, that’s exactly right. Look, we started to hear about this virus in January and we started to hear what China was doing.”
In the short October 2019 interview with reporters prior to the Chamber of Commerce event, Gardner uses the word “partisan” a total of ten times, with one instance in verb form (partisanized) and using the intensified form “very partisan” in half of those instances. Gardner also uses “bipartisan” or “non-partisan” four times, exclusively in reference to the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. He states the word “serious” or forms with this root (seriously, seriousness) 14 times; nine times in reference to the investigative process, once in a call to reporters to take the process “seriously,” twice in reference to “the moment” and twice in reference to “the issue” of impeachment. In his initial response to the reporter’s question, Gardener first describes the movement toward impeachment as “a very political process” taking over, which he sees as conflicting with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s “serious investigation.” Gardner next refers to a “partisan process taking place” in the House of Representatives, moving quickly to conflate this perceived partisan behavior with the behavior of the reporters. He states, “This is what we see in the House of Representatives. You see a very partisan process taking place. Why is it that when you all do stories or when you see reports in the news, it’s about four states: Colorado, Arizona, Maine and North Carolina? Seems to be about politics and elections other than the serious process that it is.” Here, Gardner is referring to four battleground states for Senate seats held by Republicans where voters appear to be trending toward the left. Gardner then returns to the topic of media coverage in these four states three additional times in the interview. When the reporters make a seventh attempt to ask Gardner if it’s appropriate for a President to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival, with one person restating the question as “But would you be okay with it if it was a Democrat asking a foreign government-” Gardner cuts off the question by stating “Look, this is what we’re doing. What I saw immediately was a jump to a very partisan, a very partisan, serious use of a tool in the Constitution. This is about an investigation that is taking place in the Senate Intelligence Committee. That’s where it should be. What we’ve seen from the House of Representatives and Nancy Pelosi is a very partisan, partisanized effort… What other reason do you have to cover four states every time you do a story on this? It’s about Colorado. It’s about California. It’s about North Carolina and Arizona. That’s what you’re saying over and over again in all these stories.” Later, after a tenth attempt by the reporters to get the yes or no answer from Gardner, and one reporter’s beginning to reference Trump’s statements on the White House Lawn suggesting China investigate Biden, Gardner cuts this reporter off by stating “Look, when you write a story… I’ve seen your stories. I’ve seen the Associated Press stories. You write about four states. You write about Maine, North Carolina, Colorado and Arizona when you talk about impeachment. Now to me, that sounds like it’s more about campaigning your politics than it is about the seriousness of this issue.”
We see the same strategy of Gardner belittling the validity of a reporter’s question regarding Gardner’s stance on an issue by framing the concern inherent in the question as “simply politics” and of also conflating a Democratic politician’s potential partisan, political motives with that of the reporter’s in the 2014 interview with Stokols.
Gardner never answers the question posed at the Chamber of Commerce event with a yes or no, and later in the interview, after stating he disagrees with the Administration’s decision to abandon the Kurds in Syria, he avoids stating that he is frustrated with President Trump not taking advice he has received on this matter, instead stating it’s “frustrating to look at what’s happened to the Kurds.”
Radical Left “Bullies” and the Conservative “We”
It may seem that Gardner is often saying little of substance with a lot of words, merely evading difficult questions posed by reporters who appear to challenge his positions. Gardner, however, works hard to establish what linguists refer to as “stance” or “footing” (Goffman 1974) in discourse as he engages in “message” politics. Referencing work by linguistic anthropologists Michael Lempert and Michael Silverstein (2012) on U.S. electoral politics, James Slotta (2020) describes the political “message” as “a set of values, character traits, and social affiliations embodied in a candidate, crafted through stylized public behaviors, and set within political, religious, and other narratives salient to voters” in a recently published volume of essays Language in the Era of Trump. Lempert and Silverstein talk about the “implied voter,” whom a politician is always addressing in their public statements. Message politics requires a recognition of the implied voter’s experiences, beliefs and overall identity in ways that align the politician with the implied voter at the exclusion of others.
An exemplary example of Gardner establishing his alignment with the imagined conservative voter is his speech at the 2019 Western Conservative Summit. In this speech, Gardner begins by identifying himself as a rural American, referencing his upbringing in Yuma, Colorado, and quickly moves to align his rural American identity with that of a conservative voter identity through the use of the first person plural pronouns, “us” and “we.” In the speech, Gardner further aligns the Democratic Party with “the radical left,” characterizing the imagined radical left as privileged, urban “bully” against which marginalized rural Americans must defend themselves. Gardner states “Those who haven’t spent time in rural America look down on us. I hear what they say about us. I hear how they use it to campaign against people like me. It feels like some people want to leave us behind, to be forgotten by the big city politicians who are enamored more with resume than accomplishment.” He continues by stating his reason for going into politics was to be voice for “every little boy and every little girl from his or her own Yuma.” Gardner states “I want that young boy and young girl from rural America to be proud of where they came from and to ignore the inaccurate and hateful descriptions of rural America that they may see on social media or TV aimed only at humiliating them, to make fun of them.” He then moves to identify the vulnerable figure of humiliated, rural American children with the majority of the voting public, stating “Our country is made up of working men and women who don’t deserve to be looked down upon because of where they live or what they believe.”
In establishing a conservative “we” voice that is “looked down upon” and bullied by the once “fringe,” radical left, he argues that “far left radical” ideas “rooted in socialism” have been normalized in the Democratic Party and the broader society, pointing to Bernie Sanders’ winning the 2016 Colorado Democratic Presidential Caucus. This point is key to Gardner continuing to position the Democratic Party as a powerful, bullying threat against which conservative voters must defend themselves. Gardner highlights a most sensitive point for conservative voters, which is a liberal view that conservatives are “racist,” portraying this as a baseless accusation rooted in the left’s inability to accept views that are different from their own. Gardner dramatically states “We, freedom’s foot soldiers, must be loud and clear. We cannot be silenced while the far left bullies Americans into adopting an extremist agenda. We cannot be silent while the far left bullies America into a sense of shame about who we are, where we live, how we worship and work, and what we have accomplished. Because I’m afraid of what America will become under the far left’s ideology where if you disagree with their point of view, then you are the enemy. If you disagree with the far left, you are racist. If you disagree with their ideology, you don’t care about your neighbors and community.”
In an analysis of popular political speeches, from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address to the 9-11 era speechmaking of George W. Bush, Michael Silverstein (2003) points to repetition as a poetic device in political speech that creates parallels between ideas and a dramatic emphasis on them to strengthen an argument. Here Gardner emphasizes his argument that conservatives’ disagreement with liberals on a number of issues including that of race is unfairly used against conservatives to portray them as bad community members and racists.
As in the example above, Gardner uses repetition and parallelism again later in the speech to portray Democrats as insincere, drive in the message that Democrats are bullies coercing conservatives to give up the most cherished aspects of their culture and social life, and to rally his conservative audience to defend themselves against pressures to change their perspectives on certain social issues by fighting against Democrats. He states “But, you know what, I don’t even think a majority of the American people believe the stuff that they’re selling. Heck, I don’t even believe that a majority of Democrats believe the stuff coming from their party’s representatives. And that’s why we need to speak up. That’s why we won’t be bullied into not wearing the American flag. We will not be bullied into being afraid to support our law enforcement community. We will not be afraid to protect our borders. We will not be bullied into giving up our faith and our right to worship as we see fit. And we will not be bullied into being silent.”
Cory Gardner’s discourse strategy of positioning liberals and mainstream journalists as having inauthentic motives and of being bullies who unfairly attack conservative figures is also seen in the 2014 interview with Stokols and the 2019 Chamber of Commerce interview. In contrast to the tendency of conservative discourse to model a “strict father morality” (Lakoff 2020) and to represent liberals as crybabies and fragile “snowflakes” (McIntosh 2020), Gardner’s discourse tends to position conservatives as oppressed victims of liberal elites. Yet, Gardner’s discourse strategy may demonstrate a variant of Lakoff’s “strict father” model, in which Gardner positions himself both as an oppressed conservative in an increasingly liberal society and a tough conservative leader who can stand up to liberal elite bullies on behalf of all those who share his conservative values. In this way he positions conservatives as vulnerable despite more liberal discourse that points to conservative values as dominant forces of oppression against various marginalized groups including women, the LGBTQI community, and various communities of color, and positions himself as the understanding but tough family head who will not be coerced into doing what liberals ask and who can lead his fellow conservatives in a fight against once “fringe,” but now mainstreamed liberal ideas and policy action.
The Incoherence of Message Politics
In his public discourse, Cory Gardner consistently works to maintain a stance as a true conservative who can speak and act for Colorado’s more conservative voters, but does so in a politically heterogeneous state with a diverse population of conservative voters; with some in the far right of the personhood issue and others who lean left in regard to women’s reproductive rights; with some who believe in Trump’s promise to “make America great again” and others who abhor Trump’s approach to various issues. To maintain his stance as the true conservative voice for such a differentiated group, Gardner often avoids public commentary in environments that cannot be controlled, opting for the more controlled environment of right-wing talk radio where both the audience is more clearly defined and the questions less likely to challenge his conservative identity.
When faced with challenging questions that jeopardize his conservative stance, however, Gardner is forced to strategically evade such questions, sometimes to the point of incoherence. As Slotta (2020) argues, however, incoherence in a politician’s speech “is not necessarily a liability” and can be useful to a politician in creating a seemingly “authentic” persona, as one who lives outside politics but is committed to the political representation of their people.
If, as polls indicate, Cory Gardner loses his Senate seat this Election Day, there are a number of factors that could contribute to that loss. In this moment marked by a pandemic, economic collapse, and social unrest, one factor may be that voters are no longer satisfied with incoherent talk that recognizes certain identities but cannot clearly address the issues that are most pressing to them.
Christina Leza is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Colorado College. She is a linguistic anthropologist and Yoeme-Chicana activist scholar whose research interests include political discourse and social identities, racial and ethnic discourses, Indigenous rights movement, and borderland politics. She is the author of Divided Peoples: Policy, Activism and Indigenous Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Border.
Goffman, Erving. 1974. Frame Analysis. New York: Harper & Row.
Lakoff, George. 2020 . Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. Third edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lempert, Michael and Michael Silverstein. 2012. Creatures of Politics: Media, Message and the American Presidency. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
McIntosh, Janet. 2020. Crybabies and Snowflakes. In Language in the Era of Trump. J. McIntosh and Norma Mendoza-Denton, eds. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Silverstein, Michael. 2003. Talking Politics: The Substance of Style from Abe to “W”. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Slotta, James. 2020. Significance of Trump’s Incoherence. In Language in the Era of Trump. J. McIntosh and Norma Mendoza-Denton, eds. New York: Cambridge University Press.